Penalties avoided: WSW pay dispute settled in extra-time
Why the Western Sydney Wanderers would have failed at mediation
The Western Sydney Wanderers Football Club has surprised and delighted football (soccer) fans since its inception. In its first season, WSW won the A-League Premier’s Plate and qualified for the Grand Final where they were defeated 0-2 by league veterans the Central Coast Mariners. The fairy tale continued with the club going on to win the Asian Football Confederation Champions’ League (ACL), thus becoming the first Australian team ever named Asian Champion.
At the 2014 AFC Annual Awards, Western Sydney Wanderers was named Asian Club of the Year, and Tony Popovic as the "Asian Coach of the Year." The ACL win also qualified the Wanderers for entry to the FIFA Clubs World Cup which kicked off in Morocco on December 10th.
In the days leading up to the Clubs World Cup, reports emerged that the club and the playing group were in dispute over pay and conditions. Of the $1.2 million prize money awarded to the club by virtue of its CWC qualification, the club had offered the players 10% to be split between the entire squad. This was deemed unacceptably low by the players, especially as the playing group had shared in 50% of the prize money awarded to the club for its participation in the ACL the previous month.
As the players and officials were packing their bags for Africa, the Sydney Morning Herald was reporting that “Western Sydney Wanderers management and players are set to hold crisis talks in Morocco over a bitter pay dispute that has led to the squad threatening to boycott training sessions and games in the prestigious Club World Cup… Fairfax Media understands the players would be willing to find a common ground but have not ruled out the possibility of arbitration in the event an agreement is not made before the tournament.”
On December 7 – only 3 days before the CWC kick off - the Sydney Morning Herald’s Dominic Bossi reported “The Professional Footballers' Association and the Wanderers players held crisis talks at Sydney Airport on Sunday evening in a last-ditch attempt to resolve the disagreement, but were left frustrated when the club's management failed to attend or respond to any correspondence” and that “members of the playing squad are insulted by the club's refusal to seek common ground over the prize money especially as many returned to pre-season early to be fit for the Asian Champions League knock-out stages. Players feel their personal sacrifices, including playing through injury, and missing important events such as weddings and funerals due to travel have been ignored by the club's management.”
Usually I am the first to mutter “they should be in mediation” to my computer screen when I see reports of this nature. However on this occasion, mediation was never going to succeed.
Why mediation would not have worked
As I have written before, mediation is a process built on consent and trust. The aim of mediation is to help parties explore every aspect of their dispute in detail. The parties determine what will be discussed, when and how.
If, as reported, the club refused to attend the Sydney Airport crisis meeting or respond to any correspondence from players’ representatives, then it was not going to voluntarily sit down for a full and frank discussion of the matters in dispute.
Another essential element of success in mediation is the parties’ commitment to truthfulness. Being truthful with each other and the mediator, and disclosing all matters relevant to the dispute are vital to resolving a conflict through mediation. Without truth, there can be no trust. And without trust, there can be no meaningful consensus.
The club has said it intended to use the remaining prize money to build and develop an academy for young players. Veteran football commentator Craig Foster has suggested the club made misleading statements in this regard, noting that the academy had already been planned and budgeted prior to the pay dispute erupting.
Foster wrote: “This was clearly designed to manipulate public sentiment against the players as stealing from the future of the game when they had, in fact, already contributed an unbudgeted windfall of at least $600,000 by qualifying for the Club World Cup, very likely more.”
Mediation red carded
For mediation to succeed and negotiated agreements to be durable, each party must be willing to disclose all information that will impact on the decisions to be made, and actively ensure that all relevant facts are “on the table” for discussion. If, as Foster suggests, the club management was using disinformation to support its negotiating position, then mediation would never have worked.
Photo credit: Western Sydney Wanderers Goalkeeper Ante Covic - Image via The World Game