New Zealand's top rowers and cyclists have scored a key victory over High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ) in a landmark employment case that could lead to a fundamental shift in elite athletes' rights and welfare.
The Employment Relations Authority on Wednesday released its determination in the long-running case, ruling in favour of The Athletes' Cooperative, co-chaired by Olympic great Mahe Drysdale.
In a 16-page written decision, authority member Rowan Anderson found that the government agency is obligated to engage in good-faith collective bargaining with the cooperative, which represents around 60 elite cyclists and rowers.
HPSNZ bosses had rejected earlier moves to negotiate a collective agreement on the basis that it does not have a formal employment relationship with athletes.
Much of the written decision is a discussion of the finer points of employment law, but Anderson ultimately concludes that "for the purposes of initiating collective bargaining … [it is not] a requirement that the union seeking to initiate bargaining have members that are, at the time of initiation, employees of the proposed employer party".
In a statement attributed to director of high performance Steve Tew, HPSNZ said it was "surprised and concerned with this outcome". It was now taking "time to consider next steps, one of which is to appeal the decision in the Employment Court".
Drysdale said the ruling would pave the way for the independent athlete union to secure strong protections for athletes.
"The main thing is what we have been fighting for over the last 18 months has been accepted as the right way, so I guess there is a sense of vindication there that the ERA have ruled that [HPSNZ] should have been engaging with us in the process," the two-time Olympic gold medallist said.
"This has gone our way, but ultimately it is the start of the process. Now we have to get around the table and the hard work begins."
Following the hearing in February 2023, the Cooperative and HPSNZ initially requested that the ERA suspend its decision while the two parties attempted to hash out their differences around the table. But after months of no progress, the ERA stepped back in late last year.
Drysdale said while the discussions with HPSNZ had been "productive" they could not reach any meaningful resolutions. The ERA's decision meant HPSNZ was now compelled to follow a clear framework to reach a collective agreement.
"The issue we had was there was nothing compelling HPSNZ to change and agree to a framework and set of protections. We had productive chats, but that's all it is. It was kind of like 'tell us your issues, we'll deal with it'.
"That's exactly what we don't want. Our athletes have a lot of knowledge, and a lot of experience and IP, and we want to be part of coming up with the solution."
Among the cooperative's goals is to push for a system where "our remuneration matches the expectation of our roles and responsibilities, and we have genuine financial stability"; "the wellbeing and identity of all people are paramount"; and a "strong and respectful staff-athlete performance culture exists, founded on mutual respect, equality and trust".
The highly political battle stems back to mid-2022, when athletes from the country's two most successful Olympic sports formed a union and issued a notice to HPSNZ that it sought to initiate collective bargaining.
The move came in the wake of a damning review into the culture of New Zealand's elite sporting environments following the suspected suicide of Olympic cyclist Olivia Podmore in August 2021.
The review, headed by former solicitor general Mike Heron KC and leading academic Sarah Leberman, raised concerns about the "chilling effects" of the power imbalance between athletes and sports leaders, noting that current athlete agreements impose far more onerous demands on the athletes than it does the government agency and national sporting bodies.
The review panel recommended that HPSNZ consult with athletes on the contractor vs employees model "in recognition of the fact they are under [Cycling NZ's] effective control and train/compete at [Cycling NZ's] direction".
The report also recommended that an independent athlete representative body be established, which proved the impetus for Drysdale and several high profile cyclists and rowers forming The Athletes' Cooperative.