MLS Referees consider strike as PRO threatens officials! – UPDATED 3/6/14

The moving trucks are lined up in Sochi. The half-pipe is being thawed for storage. And the four electronic snowflakes will soon find a permanent home in an Olympic museum, or perhaps the Sochi Mall. Four years and 4,448 miles until The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games. And, a lifetime of memories for Drew Doughty, whom I now declare the MVP of Team Canada and my Los Angeles Kings.

On this soapbox – graciously presented by our friends at — I’ve shared a thought, voiced an occasional opinion, maybe two. I’ve taken on controversy, and although Sideshow Bob is still calling the shots, I predict winds of change will soon usher in a brighter day in Minnesota…

As we bid adieu to February, I call on every soccer referee reading this Blog, every friend of a colleague who knows a soccer referee, and every soccer fan – whether avid or casual – to answer the call and take action. This one’s personal.

Amid great anticipation comes a time for UNITY.

On March 8, Major League Soccer will kick-off its 19th season amid unprecedented anticipation. The debut of expansion franchises in New York and Orlando are only a year away. David Beckham and his friends in South Florida will soon develop a patch of ground for the Miami Spice to call home. Television contracts will soon be up for renewal, and with at least 22 stable franchise groups on the books, MLS’ outlook has never been brighter. Yes, MLS will need to reach a new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association – no small feat – after the 2014 season, but with the guiding hand of Commissioner Garber, I see a deal being reached in short order.

Come June, World Cup Brazil 2014 takes center stage. Yes, Team USA was drawn into 2014’s “Group of Death.” But as much as Ghana, the competence of our national team has made this group the challenge it is… for Germany and the others. Whether our boys can successfully navigate through the group stage and into the knockout round remains to be seen, but we can anticipate a month-long soccer celebration regardless of their success.

Reflecting on great progress, we realize the need for UNITY.

So much has changed in MLS since 1996. I can attest to improvements large and small that have occurred since 2001 – 2006, when I worked as an Assistant Referee. Back in my day, referees weren’t given adidas uniforms – we purchased our uniforms from Official Sports, and we sewed, velcroed, pinned and/or glued MLS logos on the sleeves of our jerseys. (Those of us who served on the FIFA panel had the additional challenge of borrowing matching adidas jerseys from peers for international games!) And no more games in cavernous stadiums – like my first career assignment at the original Mile High Stadium in Denver (yes, I was probably mile high with excitement that night!).

When National Camp convened every January, FIFA panelists met for an hour to discuss anything and everything (I remember taking a poll as to who had/didn’t have red adidas jerseys)… including game fees and whether we could do anything to elevate them to the point that we wouldn’t be embarrassed about what we earned to represent our brethren in places like Guatemala City or Port of Spain.

Like I said, much has changed for the better since my legs gave out. The arrival of Mr. Beckham and the adidas MLS contract coincided with the formation of the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA), which during its infancy, saw its leaders meet with the likes of since-departed MLS Executive Vice President Nelson Rodriguez… and the two sides quickly and amicably reached handshake deals about game fees and related issues.

Let me repeat that statement for emphasis: Without creating a need for protracted negotiations or representation from legal counsel, for several years, the leadership of PSRA, MLS and U.S. Soccer have sat down together, worked quickly through any differences, established common ground, and reached a handshake deal over referee game fees and related officiating issues.

Flash forward to 2014. For Season #19, I see two fundamental challenges that could derail MLS from its current growth trajectory: the franchise soon-to-be formerly known as CD Chivas USA could slip further into anonymity, to the point that home games will be free admission and fans will be recruited (think Time Share!) to attend; and the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) might manage to convince 76 referees, assistant referees and fourth officials to walk off their jobs, allowing (in theory) for NFL-style replacement officials to bungle game-critical decisions in packed soccer stadiums and on national television.

MLS replacement officials are a recipe for disaster… one I cannot fathom.

Over the past two weeks, several articles have appeared in the Washington Post and on EPSN’s soccer website, outlining the current dispute between PRO and PSRA… which is a union recognized by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to represent the professional soccer referees who work games in Major League Soccer throughout the United States and Canada. The latest news is that PSRA’s membership has voted to authorize the PSRA to strike whenever is deems it to be appropriate… or not at all.

What’s at stake? Contrary to what you might think, it’s NOT all about game fees or earnings potential. To the credit of both sides, neither has gone public to fling mud or make comments about the economic and the non-economic issues in dispute, so I’d like to think these are matters that can be resolved, so why can’t they focus on resolving them?

More concerning, according to the articles published by the Washington Post and, PSRA has filed two grievances with the NLRB, first citing PRO for unfair labor practices (failure to respond to information requests, engaging in regressive bargaining by taking tentative agreements off the table, failing to bargain in good faith), and more recently alleging that a management representative of PRO threatened several referees with reprisals if they continued to support the efforts of the union.

“The management rep made threatening comments to the effect that if they weren’t careful about their participation in union activities, their future career refereeing in MLS could be in jeopardy,” said PSRA vice president Steven Taylor.

Apparently, it was this objectionable action taken by PRO at a weekend training session that resulted in the union taking the strike authorization vote last week.

In due time, the NLRB will investigate the two grievances (the first of the two is already under review), and if the complaints prove to be valid, what does that tell us about the management of PRO and their negotiation tactics? Several sources within PSRA – both its board and member officials – have decried the bullying tactics of PRO management. And, according to Mr. Taylor, at least one active official working games in Major League Soccer is prepared to testify on the record when the grievance is heard by NLRBand he intends to name names.

Let’s not lose sight of who we are talking about here. The management team of PRO is comprised of highly decorated retired referees — officials who performed at a very high level in Europe and here in the United States. If the NLRB finds this complaint to be credible — and that a former professional referee has engaged in these tactics against current officials — what does that tell us about the mission, vision and values of the Professional Referee Organization (PRO)?

Fortunately, all is not yet lost. Reached on Sunday at his Virginia home, Mr. Taylor made it clear that PSRA doesn’t see a strike as a foregone conclusion, stating for the record that “starting the MLS season without a CBA remains an option.”

If a game officials strike is eventually called, soccer suffers… and at what price?

Depending on who you ask in the same Chicago office, we have either 135,000 or 145,000 registered soccer referees in the United States. So, wait a minute… we don’t have another 100 or so referees waiting in the wings, right behind the 76 MLS officials (anointed by PRO), to take a phone call, accept an assignment and suit up?

According to Mr. Taylor, a large percentage of this next tier of officials is already involved as active members of PSRA, and they are in support of the top officials. As well they should be. Shortsightedness has no place in this discussion. Referees who are working hard to earn their opportunity will – eventually – be granted it. Anyone thinking “carpe diem” should take a serious look at Major League Baseball… after the 1979 strike was settled, how many replacement umpires enjoyed lengthy careers in MLB? I can remember one… that’s right: one.

So, does that mean that I might get a phone call to come out of retirement? I certainly hope not. I have said it many times: Unlike Michael Jordan, I only retired once. I’m done. Am I alone in this position?

It really doesn’t matter how you personally feel about labor unions – whether you are pro- or anti-… or could not care less. Personally, on different issues, I’ve found myself on either side of the fence when it comes to organized labor. And I am proud to say that there’s a union-made Pontiac convertible (yes, a Pontiac) in the driveway (maybe it will also end up in a museum one day).

PSRA has made it clear: the differences that separate the two sides in this dispute are not great… and are certainly issues that can be resolved… this week. Mr. Taylor intends to convene a meeting with Peter Walton, general manager of PRO, and a second member of the PSRA Board on Tuesday in Washington, DC. According to Mr. Taylor, no attorneys are scheduled to accompany either side to make mountains out of mole hills or further delay productive bargaining.

One can hope. Forgive me for being skeptical, but I don’t see a breakthrough this week… but I hope I am wrong. For all the good that’s been accomplished since PRO was created two years ago – and I give Peter Walton and his colleagues a ton of credit for the officiating improvements on the pitch and off – at the end of the day, Mr. Walton answers to a board comprised of the management of MLS and U.S. Soccer.

It’s time for all of us to raise a UNITED voice.

What if 135,000 registered U.S. Soccer Referees took a stance in support of the 76 officials who have worked their tails off – on the field, in the classroom, at the gym and on the track (oh, how I loathed the track!)? What if the 100 “next in line” took a proactive stance to demonstrate unwavering support of their senior peers? What if our spouses, friends and relatives that have supported us in our hobby stood alongside us in support of this cause?

My friends, I ask you to take a stance in support of the PSRA and the talented professional soccer referees and assistant referees it represents.

There are three things you can do to be heard, and you can do all of them today:

First, for the 95% of you on Facebook, make the PSRA Logo your Profile Photo. A lot of your Facebook Friends already have, so please get on board. It doesn’t matter if you are Grade 5, Grade 6, Grade 7 (new or old version) or Grade 8… join the cause. For the spouses that let us spend our Sundays getting berated, join the cause. And if you feel ambitious, forward this to your Facebook Friends – regardless of their soccer affiliations, if any – and challenge them to join the cause.

Second, if you know of an aspiring referee who might get a phone call from PRO, please consider reaching out to remind them exactly what’s at stake here.

And third, share your own opinions about these negotiations with the management of PRO and PSRA.

PRO Contact Form

PSRA Contact Information

As the voice of reason, I’m asking that good faith negotiations resume… without undue influence or interference… so that the very best soccer officials throughout the United States and Canada can receive their just reward for their decades of sacrifice and training… something our loved ones know all too well.­­­­

Just one writer’s opinion… for the continued growth of the World’s Game here on American soil.

— LATEST UPDATE (March 6, 2014 11:00 EST) —

Here are the latest updates on the ongoing negotiations between PSRA and PRO… and our take on what these developments might mean:

After a three and a half hour conference call with its membership on Wednesday evening, PSRA lead negotiator Steven Taylor informed his counterparts at PRO that the referee union has rejected PRO’s most recent economic proposal. Mr. Taylor also confirmed that PSRA declined the option of a short-term no-strike/no-lockout agreement that was also proposed by PRO.

According to Mr. Taylor, the two sides are now $400,000 apart – which comes down to a little over $21,000 per current MLS club.

I say it’s time for someone in New York to cut a check and end this stalemate.

PSRA’s decision to reject the last PRO counter offer – and to go public with the financial impasse – comes on the heels of two days of negotiations in New York, and coincides with today’s opening of an Orlando three-day training camp for referees scheduled to work opening round games this weekend.

Also this week, MLS Commissioner Don Garber puffed up his chest on Tuesday and gave his annual kickoff remarks (in the form of a video Q&A session), including the following less-than-encouraging comments:

“We will be opening up this weekend with referees,” Garber said, “and we are absolutely in position to have a contingency plan if those discussions do not end positively. Nothing is going to stop us from having a strong opening.”

Well, I guess Mr. Garber is convinced he will have bodies in uniforms… if not the country’s finest, then whoever is available at short notice this weekend. (Spoiler Alert: I AM NOT!)

Also on Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that the two sides had reached an impasse. Mr. Taylor apparently informed the Post’s Steven Goff that management had “threatened a lockout. I expect that call later today from Peter Walton.” According to the Post’s article, Mr. Taylor also confirmed that PRO had conducted a training camp for potential replacement referees last weekend in Dallas.

And just who are the North Dallas Forty? I’m not going to name names… in order to protect the potentially innocent. Multiple sources report that several former MLS referees were flown into the Metroplex last weekend, along with several FIFA referees from other nations… that’s right, PRO held a Job Fair in the Big D… but were they able to come up with 36 replacement officials for this weekend? I really don’t want to find out… and I don’t want to know what our guests from Europe and the Caribbean have been doing all week (reviewing MLS game films and ordering room service?).

So, to summarize: Still no deal, $400k to resolve, replacement officials waiting in the weeds, PRSA member referees scheduled to work are preparing in Orlando. Let’s hope for peace and understanding over the next few days and throughout the weekend.

It’s a critical time for MLS to showcase its very best… and not this…

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