[MLS] Following three days of negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement in New York, MLS President Mark Abbott termed the talks as “productive” but L.A. Galaxy player rep Chris Klein insisted that the two sides “remain very far apart on the major issues.” When asked if by voting overwhelmingly to strike unless a new CBA is negotiated the players might have convinced the owners of their solidarity, he said, “Let’s hope so.”
Different news sources reported different vote totals on a strike action, but suffice it, the "yeas" pummeled the "nays" a few hundred to a handful.
Klein participated in the meetings and rejoined his Galaxy teammates Thursday. “I won’t discuss any of the specifics regarding what we talked about the past few days,” he said, “but let me just reiterate the players will not start the season without a new CBA in place.”
That stance eliminates two possibilities: (a) that MLS and the players the operate under terms of the CBA that expired Feb 25, which MLS has offered to do; and (b) the players agree to play while the two sides continue to negotiate into the season.
The latter situation is theoretically possible, according to Commissioner Don Garber.
“I don’t know if it’s important to get into the legality of it, but in essence, the way the labor system works is when two sides can’t agree – well, the New York Police Department worked without a contract for seven years and they still came to work every day and the city still paid them – the league can operate without an agreement,” said Garber over the weekend. “There are things that are very technical that happen when you operate after the expiration of an agreement, but certainly we can operate and they can get paid to come to work until they reach a point where they decide not to do that.”
Players have stressed their concern about three main issues:
GUARANTEED CONTRACTS. Kansas City player rep Jimmy Conrad and Klein did offer one specific condition the players would like to see removed: the contract guarantee date (in the case of last season, July 1) after which a player signed to a “semi-guaranteed” contract on a team’s roster receives his full salary for the season.
“If they sign you, they should guarantee your contract for the whole season,” says Conrad. “If they decide later they don’t want you, they can buy you out and cut you or try to trade or sell you. If they make a mistake, well, that can happen, but why doesn’t the league fine them or punish them instead of the player? Why should we always take it in the shorts?”
Conrad doesn’t expect every player coming out of college to get a guaranteed deal right away, but many veteran players don't have contracts fully guaranteed.
Klein, a veteran of more than a decade in the league, says he has had guaranteed years in contracts. When asked how many of his years had been fully guaranteed, Conrad – an All-Star and Best XI selection several times over – replied, “Zero.”
The players contend that many players are cut before the July 1 date, and left hanging in limbo for weeks or months while the team searches for alternatives – as per the European summer transfer window or other options – after which he is waived, traded, or offered another contract for much less money. The team is permitted to extend the contract guarantee date short-term, with no recourse granted to the player.
FREE AGENCY. Under MLS rules, a team retains a player’s rights indefinitely within the league if it attempts to re-sign him, which in actual practice means any offer – no matter its terms – is sufficient for this stipulation to kick in. The team retains the player's rights if the team and player don't reach an agreement or if player chooses to move to a league outside MLS. The league does this to prohibit players from heading overseas and re-entering MLS as a true free agent.
“A team shouldn’t still have a player’s rights after four years,” says Klein, in reference to Union defender Danny Califf, who left MLS after the 2005 season to play in Denmark. As the league negotiated with his club, Midtjylland, to buy out his contract, the Union negotiated to, in effect, buy him from Houston. His rights were traded for allocation money.
“His rights were held by San Jose, which had moved to Houston, so Philadelphia had to work out a trade with them. He shouldn’t have to do that.”
Califf had made no secret of his intention to go overseas and the year before, then-Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid had traded him to San Jose with that in mind.
UNILATERAL OPTIONS. Unilateral options that often comprise the final two years of the league’s standard four-year contract are also a point of contention. A player’s rights can be retained if that option is exercised, but even if it is declined the club retains his rights. It can offer him a contract at a lower – in some cases much lower – salary.
In line with the options are durations of contracts. Most contracts run at least four seasons, including the two option years which often contain very modest salary increases that further limit a player’s ability to get more value for his services.
Contracts in some cases are re-negotiated at a higher salary, yet the league has final say on what a team can offer regardless of how much a league rival might be willing to pony up.
Garber and Abbott contend this underpinning of the single-entity system enables MLS to control salaries and is fundamental to the league’s viability. The players do not agree.
“At the end of the day, the deadline for when a deal has to get done is up to the players,” said Garber last weekend. “We’re not going to lock them out and we’re willing to play under the current rules, so they’re going to have to decide what their move is. Our hope is that we reach an agreement before the start of the season. I never thought we’d get there in the weeks right after MLS Cup, but now we’re getting super-close to the first game.”
Klein agrees with that last point, if not much else.
“The window is getting smaller,” he said in reference to the March 25 opener at Qwest Field matching last year’s expansion sensation, Seattle Sounders FC, and newcomer Philadelphia Union. “We want to reach an agreement, but we can’t let things continue as they are.”