History of football players’ unions

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As the European football championship kicks off later today, we thought we would take a look at the history of Britain’s football trade unions.

The Professional Footballers’ Association is rather unusual and in many ways is one of Britain’s most successful trade unions. Though still overwhelmingly drawing its members from the working classes, the PFA has helped to establish its members as some of the most highly paid and well protected (in terms of collective bargaining) of all workers in Britain.

Founded in 1907 from a meeting in the Imperial Hotel in Manchester by footballers Billy Meredith and Charlie Roberts, it was originally known as the Association Football Players’ and Trainers’ Union (or more commonly as simply The Players’ Union).

Union rule book, 1957

Unions are often stereotyped as wanting to secure various restrictions and regulations for their members, but the Players’ Union was formed with precisely the opposite intention. It wanted to liberalise players’ terms and conditions, in particular by abolishing the “retain and transfer system” that then existed, which made it very difficult for players to terminate a contract of employment with one club and move to another. The union also sought to abolish the maximum wage that was imposed in the Football League. Disagreement between the Players’ Union and the FA almost resulted in a strike of football players in 1909, as the FA de-recognised the union and banned players from affiliating to it.

Membership dwindled, but the union continued the fight during the inter-war period, and the 1950s saw a period of modernisation. Jimmy Hill became General Secretary of the union in 1956. Hill changed the name of the union to the Professional Footballers’ Association and made numerous influential reforms to the modern game of football (see this excellent summary on the BBC website). In 1961, threatening a strike, Hill successfully negotiated the abolition of the maximum wage for footballers. Further legal challenges to the transfer system liberalised the movement of players between clubs.

PFA rule book, 1970

The TUC Library holds a copy of John Harding’s official history of the PFA “For the Good of the Game” and a number of rule books and other documents. For more information about what we hold, get in touch.

History of the PFA produced for an exhibition at the National Museum of Labour History, 1991

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