MLS Referees are Locked Out… Here come the Replacements!

Time, patience and reason have apparently run out.

This morning at 11:00 am Eastern, the management of the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) announced that it has locked out members of the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA), and that PRO will schedule replacement officials for the eight Major League Soccer matches that will be played this weekend.

After contacting PSRA leadership this morning and informing them of the lockout decision, PRO General Manager Peter Walton informed a gathering of 25 officials in Orlando at 10:30am Eastern. In a somber 20-minute meeting, Walton instructed the referees to alter their flight itineraries and return home, and that their compensation and health insurance benefits had stopped effective immediately. The officials had flown to Orlando for three days of instruction and training in advance of this weekend’s games, and most were scheduled to fly directly to their “game cities” later today.

“We have made a substantial proposal to the Professional Soccer Referees Association and believe it is very fair and reasonable,” said Mr. Walton. “Our proposal represents a significant increase above current compensation for referees and places them above the average for officials around the world. We are disappointed it has been rejected.”

Above the average, Mr. Walton? Is Major League Soccer a professional league that sees itself as “above the average” when compared with pro leagues around the world? Is the level of play and fan experience in San Jose, California marginally better than the one in San Jose, Costa Rica? I don’t think that’s the phrase that MLS talking heads throw out… their egos are quite a bit larger.

On its website this morning, PRO claimed that it had hoped to avoid a lockout and suggested a path that would avert a work stoppage. “We had suggested a no strike/no lockout agreement for a reasonable period in an effort to keep the negotiations going but that was rejected by the PSRA”, said Mr. Walton. “Since they will not give us a guarantee they will not go on strike immediately prior to our matches, we are left in a position where we must use replacement officials to ensure that the MLS games are played as scheduled this weekend.

Let me get this straight: After PRO was in absolutely no hurry to reach any agreements for months (see story of NLRB filings by PRSA), and with no CBA in place, PRO was now demanding PSRA to sign a no strike/no lockout agreement while the sides remained in disagreement?

And by not signing such an agreement, PRO is now suggesting that PSRA is the bad apple? Wow.

The leadership of PSRA, meanwhile, was less interested in discussing no strike agreements and more focused on the repeated strong-arm tactics it believes that PRO and its representatives have employed.

“As chair of the negotiating committee, I am deeply saddened by PRO and Major League Soccer’s decision to lockout its officials in advance of the beginning of what could be a historic MLS season,” said PSRA lead negotiator Steven Taylor. “PSRA has worked tirelessly to reach an agreement, however we have been met with resistance since the beginning, being forced to seek relief from the National Labor Relations Board on charges of bad faith bargaining and management threats against our Officials. Those charges remain pending. We were hopeful to continue negotiations and even were seeking the assistance of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS).”

“It would appear, unfortunately, the League has decided to employ scorched earth tactics instead,” added Mr. Taylor.

So here’s what we know as of Noon Eastern on March 7, 2013:

Replacement officials (a minimum of 28, and more likely a total of 32) will be hastily assembled by PRO to work games in Seattle, Washington DC, Vancouver, Dallas, Houston, Portland and Los Angeles on Saturday, and in Los Angeles on Sunday. Replacement officials will likely be a group comprised of former MLS referees, current or recently-retired FIFA referees from other countries (believed to be from Europe and/or the Caribbean), and the next tier of American and/or Canadian referees with little or no experience at the professional level.

The widely anticipated debut (will he or won’t he?) of one Alan Kelly may well be upon us as well. My gut is that he ends up somewhere on the west coast, perhaps even in Canada…

Depending exactly how badly the games are presented this weekend, the home opener for CD Chivas USA might not be the worst PR story for MLS this weekend. Why the league assigned Nelson Rodriguez to salvage the Chivas debacle (let’s face it… for 2014, the team might as well be re-branded as CD Chernobyl) – instead of reprising his role as the proven, effective, steady hand to negotiate with PSRA on behalf of MLS – remains a major disappointment and mystery to this writer.

So, be sure to set the DVR… I fear there will be stories this weekend… and for all the wrong reasons.

UPDATE 3/18/2014 – 5:00pm EDT

Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation have confirmed that the framework of an agreement has been reached following several days of lengthy mediation.

The PSRA membership is expected to discuss the proposed agreement via conference call this evening. A vote to ratify a new Collective Bargaining Agreement could come as soon as tomorrow.

Scot L. Beckenbaugh, Acting Director of the Federal Mediation and
Conciliation Service (FMCS) and Jack Sweeney, FMCS Director of Mediation Services for the Northeast Sub-Region, conducted lengthy mediation sessions with representatives from PRO and the PSRA, starting on March 12 and continuing into this afternoon, when a deal was finally hammered out.

With the issues that led to the PRO lockout just before MLS First Kick on March 8 now resolved, it appears that sanity might be restored in time to save this weekend’s slate of nine games – including home openers in New England, Salt Lake, Montreal, Toronto, Columbus, Colorado, and Chicago.

The Real Salt Lake vs. L.A. Galaxy game will be broadcast nationally on the NBC Sports Network (on Saturday at 4:00pm ET), and apparently, it will NOT be officiated by Alan Kelly. Assuming the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed, it is believed that Ishmail Elfath is scheduled to whistle the match… much to my relief as a retired official, a writer with an agenda, and most important –- as a Galaxy fan.

Meanwhile, the future – if any – for the three-striped replacement officials who worked the first two MLS weekends on a band-aid basis remains cloudy… but don’t expect the PSRA membership to extend an olive branch!

Categories: MLS

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