Soccer Players Are Workers Too. And In Guatemala, They Just Went On Strike.

Jeff Abbott

Rony Flores (C) of Honduras' Real Espana vies for the ball with Marvin Avila(L) and Cristian Jimenez of Municipal from Guatemala during the CONCACAF Champions League at Mateo Flores Stadium in Guatemala city on September 17, 2014. (JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Across Latin Amer­i­ca, soc­cer is like a reli­gion for many. Each week­end, fans cram into sta­di­ums to cheer on their teams. Eduar­do Galeano, the renowned Uruguayan author and out­spo­ken fan of soc­cer who passed away in 2015, once declared that soc­cer was the only reli­gion with­out atheists.”

The Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­try of Guatemala is no different.

Yet in spite of the spe­cial place that soc­cer has in Latin Amer­i­ca and Guatemala, the play­ers can face dif­fi­cult labor con­di­tions, includ­ing con­tact vio­la­tions, intim­i­da­tion and overt racism from fans. 

Faced with this sit­u­a­tion, rough­ly 250 mem­bers of the Pro­fes­sion­al Soc­cer Play­ers of Guatemala Union (Sindi­ca­to de Fut­bolis­tas Pro­fe­sion­ales de Guatemala, or SIFUPGUA) announced on Sep­tem­ber 21 that they were going on strike from play­ing match­es. The strike last­ed until Sep­tem­ber 24, tak­ing place as the Nation­al League entered week 10 of matches. 

The pro­fes­sion­al play­ers were send­ing the mes­sage that they are unit­ed and that they would not play until the league responds to their demands,” Car­los Figueroa, a for­mer soc­cer play­er in the Guatemala Nation­al League and cur­rent gen­er­al sec­re­tary of SIFUPGUA, told In These Times.

We have years of solic­it­ing the clubs and the league to improve work­ing con­di­tions, but we have nev­er received any respons­es. We have been ignored by the league and club own­ers,” Figueroa said. There have been cas­es where play­ers have been hit with exces­sive sanc­tions, oth­er play­ers who were poor­ly treat­ed, and play­ers who were insult­ed with racist terms in a sta­di­um. This rose the indig­na­tion of play­ers and we took the means to be heard.” 

The announce­ment fol­lowed two recent high-pro­file inci­dents against players.

Fol­low­ing a match in Antigua Guatemala in August 2018, Fredy Thomp­son, a mid­field­er for the team Antigua FC and mem­ber of the Guatemalan Nation­al team, made a series of remarks crit­i­ciz­ing the Guatemalan Soc­cer league and its lead­er­ship, refer­ring to them as a mafia.” In response, the league sanc­tioned Thomp­son a fine of 10,000 Quet­za­les (rough­ly 1,333 dol­lars U.S. dol­lars) and sus­pend­ed from play­ing for 6 months. 

It was wrong that Thomp­son crit­i­cized the league,” said Figueroa. But the sanc­tion was excessive.”

Thomp­son lat­er apol­o­gized for the comments.

The next inci­dent occurred Days lat­er, dur­ing week 8 of the 22-week sea­son. In protest, Mar­vin Ávi­la, a mid­field­er with Siquinalá FC and mem­ber of the Guatemalan Nation­al team, picked up the ball abrupt­ly stop­ping the match against Mala­cate­co FC on Sep­tem­ber 9 dur­ing the 70th minute of the match. Ávi­la, who is of African decent, had received racist remarks through­out the match from the fans of Mala­cate­co. Upon stop­ping the match, the oth­er play­ers from both Siquinalá FC and Mala­cate­co FC stood in sol­i­dar­i­ty with Ávila.

The strike did lit­tle to deter clubs from con­tin­u­ing the week­end match­es. Accord­ing to Figueroa, clubs brought play­ers from the youth leagues in to break the strike and con­tin­ue with week 10

Nego­ti­a­tions with the League

The strike, which last­ed only a few days, gen­er­at­ed a nation­al debate in the nation­al media and on social media. Some took to social media to praise the action, but many oth­ers crit­i­cized play­ers for striking. 

Yet the strike suc­cess­ful­ly got the nation­al soc­cer league to the nego­ti­a­tion table after over a year of denounce­ments. By Sep­tem­ber 24, the play­ers and the 12 pro­fes­sion­al clubs had reached an agree­ment to improve the work­ing con­di­tions that play­ers face. 

An agree­ment was signed with the fed­er­a­tion [to resolve the strike],” Figueroa told In These Times. The agree­ment put in place a date for the imple­men­ta­tion of the rights of the play­ers, the reg­u­la­tion of con­tracts, and the play­ers will be paid month­ly rather than 8 or 10 times per year.”

Figueroa points out that the pro­fes­sion­al play­ers could go on strike once again if the league and clubs fail to com­ply with the agreement

The play­ers quick­ly obtained a dia­logue between the nation­al fed­er­a­tion and the union to improve basic work­ing conditions.

Poor Work­ing Con­di­tions for Players

The strike marks the first major action that the union has tak­ensince it was found­ed in April 2018 and offi­cial­ly rec­og­nized by the Guatemalan Min­istry of Labor in Novem­ber 2017. The Pro­fes­sion­al Soc­cer Player’s Union is a mem­ber of the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Pro­fes­sion­al Foot­ballers (FIF­PRO).

Near­ly a year after its found­ing, the union has come to rep­re­sent approx­i­mate­ly 250 of the almost 450 pro­fes­sion­al soc­cer play­ers in Guatemala. 

Since its found­ing, the union has sought to improve con­di­tions for play­ers with­in the Nation­al League, yet the clubs and asso­ci­a­tions have showed lit­tle inter­est in dia­logu­ing with the play­ers. The most recent inci­dents that pro­voked the strike are only a few exam­ples in a series of events of intim­i­da­tion of play­ers, poor work­ing con­di­tions and con­tract vio­la­tions that play­ers have faced in recent years. 

There was a series of vio­la­tions of rights, con­tracts, and the play­ers were unpro­tect­ed in their work” Figueroa said. The play­ers want sta­bil­i­ty and a guar­an­tees for their work.”

The union grew out of the Soc­cer Play­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, which had been rep­re­sent­ing soc­cer play­ers since 2011. Yet the asso­ci­a­tion was unable to guar­an­tee the rights of players. 

[With the asso­ci­a­tion] we were unable to obtain our objec­tives,” explained Figueroa. We believed that form­ing a union would allow us the means to pro­tect the rights of the play­ers, the workers.”

The union allows the mem­bers to nego­ti­ate with the clubs, an asso­ci­a­tion does not,” explained Luis Fuentes, the nation­al coor­di­na­tor for the AFL-CIO Sol­i­dar­i­ty Cen­ter in Guatemala. They have been nego­ti­at­ing with the fed­er­a­tion and clubs for a min­i­mum reg­u­la­tion of the league.”

The War on Unions

Union orga­niz­ing has his­tor­i­cal­ly proven to be a dan­ger­ous endeav­or in Guatemala. Since 2004, at least 81 union orga­niz­ers and mem­bers have been killed, includ­ing three in the last two months. As a result of the vio­lence, the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Trade Unions has declared Guatemala one of the top 10 most dan­ger­ous coun­tries for union mem­bers and union orga­niz­ing in 2017

Com­pa­nies have tak­en steps to evade and lim­it union orga­niz­ing with­in their firms. These tac­tics are detailed in the SACA­PA doc­u­ment, which was pro­duced in Novem­ber 1996 for the Wack­en­hut de Guatemala S.A. secu­ri­ty com­pa­ny, now G4S security. 

The SACA­PA doc­u­ments pro­vides rec­om­men­da­tions to derail­ing orga­niz­ing with­in firms, includ­ing infus­ing fear and respect” at times of orga­niz­ing, as well as estab­lish­ing satel­lite firms that can be dis­posed of” if orga­nized.”

As a result of these efforts, union mem­ber­ship has tak­en a major hit in the two decades since the end of Guatemala’s inter­nal armed con­flict. In 1996, unions rep­re­sent­ed rough­ly 12 per­cent of work­ers, but this has fall­en to 1.2 per­cent today. 

Club own­ers and league offi­cials have remained hos­tile to the union.

The clubs have been resis­tance to changes,” said Figueroa. They have placed obsta­cles to orga­niz­ing. But we con­tin­ue to push for more inter­ac­tion between play­ers and the clubs in the improve­ment of conditions.”

There was a brief peri­od in Guatemalan his­to­ry when union mem­ber­ship flour­ished in Guatemala fol­low­ing the Octo­ber 1944 rev­o­lu­tion. Laws that had barred labor unions were reformed and work­ers began to mobi­lize to form unions in indus­tries across the coun­try, includ­ing in the banana indus­try, which was owned by the U.S.-based com­pa­ny Unit­ed Fruit Company. 

After the C.I.A.-backed coup d’état against the pro­gres­sive gov­ern­ment of Jacobo Arbenz in June 1954, the new régime of Gen­er­al Car­los Castil­lo Armas quick­ly banned unions and accused them of sup­port­ing com­mu­nism in the country. 

Yet the actions of the soc­cer play­ers’ union have proven that labor orga­niz­ing in the face of vio­lence still can occur in a coun­try that is overt­ly hos­tile to trade unions. 

It is a very valiant deci­sion that the soc­cer play­ers took,” Fuentes told In These Times. It is valiant because of the his­toric stig­ma, the attacks, and the his­toric repres­sion against unions in Guatemala.”

Jeff Abbott is an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist cur­rent­ly based out of Guatemala. He has cov­ered human rights, social moments, and issues relat­ed to edu­ca­tion, immi­gra­tion, and land in the Unit­ed States, Mex­i­co, and Guatemala. He has writ­ten for the North Amer­i­can Con­gress on Latin Amer­i­ca, Wagin​non​vi​o​lence​.org, and Upside​down​world​.org. Fol­low him on twit­ter @palabrasdeabajo
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