The union representing U.S. arena football players is joining the AFL-CIO labor federation just as the indoor football league undertakes an expansion into China.
Ivan F. Soto, executive director of the Arena Football League Players Union, told HuffPost that the affiliation with the country's largest labor federation will give players more muscle in dealing with the league at home and abroad.
"It was just a natural fit for us," Soto said. "With the rapid growth of the league we're starting to see, we felt it was good to align ourselves with an organization that can help us domestically and internationally."
Founded in 1987, the fast-paced Arena Football League now has fourteen teams throughout the U.S. The players' union represents about 350 players, or more than 90 percent of the league, according to Soto.
In 2012, former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski, who's a part owner in the league's Philadelphia Soul team, announced plans for a six-team league in China. Play is slated to start this fall. The league has signaled that it plans to expand into other countries if its China venture goes well.
Calling arena football a "gladiator sport," Soto said the union wants to make sure that it can maintain protections for players as the league moves into new markets, and that the new play includes properly trained union players. Arena players, he noted, "don't earn the kind of compensation that NFL players do."
"You can't just throw 20 guys out there in an arena that don't have a lot of experience. Someone could get killed," Soto said.
"We're happy to have the backbone of the AFL-CIO behind us," he added. "That's what solidarity is about -- trying to grow the pie for everybody, especially the players, the labor."
The AFL-CIO said it had been in talks with the arena players' union for a year leading up to the affiliation, which brings its number of member unions to 57, covering an estimated 12 million workers. In a statement, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the federation was "excited to welcome the AFLPU into America’s labor movement."
"The labor movement is stronger when all workers -- from nurses in California to teachers in New York or arena football players across the country -- speak with a collective voice," Trumka said.
An earlier iteration of the arena football players' union was associated with the NFL Players' Association, until the cancellation of the 2009 arena season. League play, and a new incarnation of the arena players' union, returned the following year.