Major League Soccer: Referee Labor Pains

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But, who will call the massive handball?  (image: By Ralph Chaplin [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

OTF’s Alex White practices his Lamaze breathing to deliver the goods on the MLS referee lockout…

The referee is the one person on the field everyone loves to hate, and I don’t envy him.  It’s tough enough to make judgments about in-match events from my bar stool, with glorious HD replay, much less do so in an instant, after viewing an event from a single angle, a single time, surrounded by screaming, enraged, lying, phantom-foul con artists, who are themselves surrounds by thousands of screaming, enraged fans who have been empirically proven to affect referee judgment calls…

But we’re not here to bury the ref, or to praise him.  We’re here to figure out why he, of the MLS version, is not out on the field, and why some other guy is instead — and there are a lot of parties, acronyms, more acronyms, and questions to wrap your head around.

The Professional Referees Organization (PRO) sure sounds like a union, but wasn’t it founded by Major League Soccer?  Why would its members strike against MLS?  Isn’t PRO controlling the scab refs working during the lockout?  Wait, who’s this PSRA — are there two referees’ unions?  And the groups are both filing unfair labor practice charges against each other?  Why can’t we all just get along?

Muddying the referees-versus-MLS narrative is the fact that the referees are actually employed by PRO — not MLS — but MLS is the “primary financial backer” in PRO (with the US Soccer Federation having a “smaller share”).  PRO was founded quite recently, even by MLS’s definition of history, to employ and train American referees to raise their performance standard.  The organization includes about 20 full- or part-time referees, and another 50+ who work on a per-game basis.  The group also sets the assignments for the top levels of the US soccer pyramid — and for a glimpse into a happier time, MLSsoccer.com has a fluff piece an inside look (from last summer) into PRO’s operations and goals.

The seeds of the current labor dispute were planted around that same time, when the 70+ officials who work Major League Soccer matches voted in April by a pretty hefty 89% in favor to “certify the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA) as their collective bargaining agent,” or union representative, in any future negotiation with PRO.

What all that boils down to is: MLS isn’t even a direct party to the current referee lockout.  While MLS does have a stake in PRO, the lockout is all about the negotiations between the referees’ direct employer (PRO, headed by Peter Walton) and their legal representative (PSRA, whose lead negotiator is vice president Steve Taylor).

And those negotiations have gotten just a tad bitter.

Back in February, in a one-week span, PSRA’s Taylor went from touting the negotiations’ “progress on non-economic issues and … good work together” to filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for PRO having allegedly threatened to blacklist refs from MLS work, withdrawn from terms already agreed to, failed to bargain in good faith, and been generally unwilling to meet.

As opening day loomed and the two sides were unable to come together, PRO decided to ensure that MLS’s season could kick off on time by locking out PSRA refs and finding others.  And let’s just say, PSRA was not happy about it.  Their “Scab Referee” exposé opens with a scathing quote, and goes on to cite person-by-person details in an attempt to undermine confidence in the replacement crew.  

For nearly all of them, their cardinal sin is never before officiating an MLS match — though I wonder what the exchange rate is for NASL, international, or CONCACAF and UEFA Champions League matches to add up to an MLS match’s equivalence of experience.

After opening weekend, PRO struck back through a NLRB unfair labor practice filing of their own, claiming the PSRA tried to intimidate the replacements with a threat they would not be able to work for PRO in future matches once the dispute is resolved.  If you’re like me, you’re starting to think both sides just plain don’t like each other. 

So, what now? 

Now, we wait.  Since the NLRB doesn’t have a timetable to respond to the complaints, the impasse could linger.  With the cancellation of new rounds of negotiation last week, we’ve already seen replacement refs through MLS week two, and just how far beyond this impasse may stretch is a significantly open question.

Both sides must be watching the men with whistles with bated breath.  US referees don’t have the most sterling reputation, but the replacements have hardly been a laughingstock.  Despite a few curiosities (most notably from Ireland’s Best), there’s been a distinct lack of fiasco thus far.  It’s tough to argue that the replacements are definitively worse than, for example, their English Premier League counterparts last weekend. 

Will the non-pandemonium continue to sap PRO’s interest in accelerating talks?  I have no idea how far apart the parties are in non-“non-economic” issues, but if the replacements can show a reasonable measure of competence, the salary levels PSRA can demand must surely drop.  The latest news is that federal mediators are getting involved, so watch this space for more.

Still, it’s approaching somewhere close to ironic that MLS’s goal in establishing PRO was to bring American referees up to a professional standard, so the soccer job could be more like their day job.  Along with investments to improve the quality of players on the field, MLS has devoted a lot of time and money to do so with their referees through PRO. 

Here’s the thing, though, about employing professionals: they expect to get paid like professionals.

ADDENDUM: Take heart, our long national nightmare is over! Yesterday (Thursday, March 20th), the two parties announced that the negotiations were successful and the lockout has ended, and although most are giving credit to the federal negotiators, I can’t help but think that my incisive breakdown of both sides’ positions enlightened the negotiators and sped up the process to its conclusion.  You’re welcome.

While, in keeping with standard MLS practice, we don’t know what the exact terms of the new agreement are, both PRO and PSRA are touting the successful consummation of the new agreement and the ways that it benefits the referees, which implies to me that PRO’s Peter Walton is not a sore winner. The competence of the replacement refs must have put a lot of pressure on the union to get this thing resolved—Wednesday’s PSRA vote to accept this new agreement passed by a dominating 72-3 in time for the unionized referees to work this weekend’s matches.

As for terms, our only indication is PSRA’s statement that the settlement includes “’substantially better’ compensation and ‘a number of non-economic work rule protections such as a just-cause standard for certain disciplinary matters[,] standardization of fitness testing[, and] … a contract protecting important quality-of-life items such as travel standards, vacation time and advance notice of match assignments.” 

The new deal will run to January 2019.  Mark your calendars.

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OTF’s Alex White is a Georgian-in-exile who’s fallen for the Windy City, and an Illinois attorney—but for the love of all that is Good, do not get your legal advice from something you saw once on the internet, including anything he says. Follow Alex for non-legal opinions @A1exWhite or send him an email at alexander.mc.white@gmail.com

One thought on “Major League Soccer: Referee Labor Pains

  1. Pingback: Dispatch: Chicago Fire (2) vs. Philadelphia Union (2) | On The Fire

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