Labor battle: Call it a draw and move on

By Ridge Mahoney

And the game of chicken continues, sort of.

Up against a twice-extended deadline to finalize a new collective bargaining agreement with MLS or play another season under the same conditions or go on strike, the MLS Players Union has instead decided on d), none of the above.

“We have advised our players to keep working for the time being, but as of Friday they will be doing so without a CBA,” Major League Soccer Players Union executive director Bob Foose said in a statement. “In the meantime, all options are being considered as the process continues.”

The options include striking, because if the CBA is no longer in force, neither are the clauses by which the union promises not to strike and the league promises not to lock the players out. So, technically, the players can train and play while holding the strike threat in hand, and the owners can elect to lock the players out. In essence, the deadline was anything but a deadline, merely a signpost on a two-lane, one-way road to uncertainty on which the players and the league are racing side-by-side, neck-and-neck.

On Monday, the league offered an olive branch to the union: extension of the current CBA by which its conditions would apply for the 2010 season while negotiations continued. Of course, the union can argue under such conditions there’s no reason for the league to settle, since it gets another guaranteed year of the way it pretty much wants things. However, it would also ensure both sides – as well as staff members, thousands of workers, and hundreds of thousands of fans – that the 2010 season would be played.

I can certainly understand the players’ anger at the league’s draconian policies. The single-entity system utilized by MLS tilts all the leverage away from them and offers very little in the way of fair practice as defined in other professional sports. On the other hand, MLS is one of the world’s more stable leagues, where salary checks are delivered on time and for the full amount.

I can also appreciate the league’s adamant stance on the status quo as effective and efficient, if also arbitrary and prone to misuse. In theory, the league carefully manages salaries league-wide to optimize use of its stringent resources; in practice, it routinely suppresses players’ market value by denying them any MLS negotiation leverage, and teams offer low-ball salaries while trying to extract a much higher relative value in trade discussions of players whose contracts have expired or been terminated.

One of many frustrations experienced by the players is the stubborn refusal of MLS to reveal enough financial data for the players to scale their financial demands. And with the league most adamant about denying the players any form of free agency as it is normally defined, it’s hard to discern where a middle ground suitable for both parties can be found. It’s not hard to imagine a brave new world where some haggling among teams for a player is permitted within snug financial boundaries, or a benchmark of service by which a player could attain more flexibility regarding guaranteed, options, etc.

But that’s for another day. All the bickering and sniping and tactical maneuvering has sparked vigorous debate and spun out a few, but not many, details pertaining to the core issues of guaranteed contracts, unilateral options, and movement of players waived, whose options have been declined, or out of contract.

As distasteful as the current CBA is to the players union management and its members, it’s time to call this a draw, take the point, and get on with the next game.

It’s just not good tactics to retain the strike threat during the season; it may be most effective, of course, for that threat to exist while games are being played for real, but other than angering and alienating the American soccer community, the past few weeks have proved the rest of the sports world just doesn’t care.

Once the Olympics are done, March Madness and baseball will take center stage. The Tiger Woods Watch persists. Heck, far more people are following the NFL Combine in Indianapolis than the MLS CBA wrangling. This league and this sport needs all the momentum it can generate for the monumental World Cup pop to come in a few months, and besides, if nothing else, what happens if the players strike next month, and Landon Donovan knows there’s no league to come back to? If the players refuse to extend the current CBA, are contracts still in force?

I’d like to say the players should stick to their guns and get at least most, if not all, of what they want. But unlike the NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB, there’s not enough traction and stability to ride out a work stoppage. Not yet. It’s more important to get Philly up and running, to keep the momentum going in Toronto and Seattle and Salt Lake City, to see how a balanced schedule and a (short) World Cup break affect a season, to give Columbus at least a fighting chance against Toluca in the Concacaf Champions League, etc.

There’s plenty of publicity during a strike and all of it is bad. Even if the league retains the status quo, it hasn’t won. Neither have the players. Both have suffered. It’s a bitter, nasty goalless draw.

A strike, though, is a clear lose-lose.

9 comments about "Labor battle: Call it a draw and move on".
  1. Ron R, February 26, 2010 at 9:34 a.m.

    Great perspective. This CBA negotiation is going to be a proving ground for which side wants soccer, for soccer's sake, to succeed in America. My guess is that the players love the game more and have a tougher time visualizing their lives without it. Bob Foose needs to understand that he doesn't represent just the Landon Donovans who can sit out comfortably in their homes and train with their personal staff... He also represents the rest of the players who can't afford to miss even one check before they need to seek employment at the Home Depot, not the Home Depot Center...

  2. Juan R, February 26, 2010 at 10:08 a.m.

    Fine, go ahead side with your entertainment rather than on making sure that our top division of soccer makes sure that players that have contributed to the league might have to go play in USL for dirt cheap while other players that are young play for peanuts. Convince those players that its for the benefit of the game in the future that they have to live like college students instead of professionals. What about those people that have families? Ever try to raise a family on college loans. Well, at least they don't have to pay back anything... unless they have to take out loans and use credit cards. Let's hope our players are not only exceptional at soccer, but that they are also personal finance geniuses, especially when their contract is not guaranteed. Let them sweat it out like dogs on the field. Instead of fighting for promotion or relegation, let them fight for their job, and let Social Darwinism take its course in the locker room.

    That's the type of league I want to support, a league that doesn't care about its players, and cannot balance owners rights and the future of soccer with players rights. So why should a good player sign with MLS when he is young? Sign me up Rayo Vallecano! Or AIK! Heck, what is the team that Anti-Glazer ManU fans started, now that's a team that understands what soccer is about.

    I support you MLS Players! If you choose to strike, I will be there to watch the league grow when the owners give you the rights that will support long term growth in this country. I want my kids to know that they can dream of being a professional that doesn't eat Ramen noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner because they might be cut, and they don't have overseas contacts.

    Forget you Ron Richard and Ridge Mahoneys. You are lackeys of big business and anti-union sentiment. This is about workers rights. I want to be proud of our American product, not laughing with the owners about how they sure ripped one on the players.

  3. Dave Oyer, February 26, 2010 at 10:12 a.m.

    this is so foolish.......on both sides. Are both sides of this issue "unaware" of the momentum soccer and the MLS are gaining in the U.S.? An ongoing impasse or strike will set back the growth and respect that has been earned recently.

  4. Paul Bryant, February 26, 2010 at 11:20 a.m.

    Juan R you stated it quite eloquently. I believe the biggest issue, as I have stated before, is freedom of player movement. If my employer decided they no longer needed my services, I do not have to ask their permission to negotiate with another employer in the same industry. This is definitely an abuse of labor, and in my opinion anti-competitive. I agree that a player would have a very hard time surviving on $30-$35k a year, but many would do so if they knew their was a prospect of some sort of free agency at the conclusion of their contract. I will admit I am a bit ambivalent on the issue of guaranteed contracts. Whenever you cannot get rid of "dead weight," or improve your team, it's a problem. I have not heard either side mention the "A" or the "M" word. That would be arbitration and mediation.

  5. jake brown, February 26, 2010 at 11:37 a.m.

    Too many negatives to consider before a settlement is reached. If the decision is made on both sides to negotiate while the season starts, how much will the players put out on the pitch. During the regular season they seem to play most games at 75-80% effort and in the play-offs at 100%. Not worth the price of admission.

  6. Mike Gaire, February 26, 2010 at 11:56 a.m.

    I have every sympathy with the players that want to have the right to move on if there club no longer wants them, like Kevin Hartman's situation in Kansas, but its also of paramount importance that the American public are not alienated now when MLS is growing and prospering. I agree with Ridge. A strike would be a total disaster, unions have a long history of destroying industries, just ask the British coal miners who supported Arthur Scargill! Did they ever achieve anything with their strike? Yes! The total destruction of the British coal mining industry and the eventual demise of the power of the British unions, who used to control the old Labour Party and are now toothless and ignored! I think arbitration/mediation might be a way to find a way forward that achieves something for both sides, but it needs to happen quickly. Do we really want to give Landon the excuse he is looking for to stay at Everton and deprive the MLS of its best player?

  7. Nalin Carney, February 26, 2010 at 12:41 p.m.

    My sympathy goes out to all the players. I know that more fthan anything else the players just want to play. It appears that the management and ownership just want to protect their financial interests. WELCOME TO THE DARK AGES!!!!!!! I support the players 100%...I also appreciate the risks taken by owners in the investment they made to make this league happen. Kudos to them. Lets move into the New Age and give the players a fair shake...not necessarily what athletes in the U.S. get....but at least what is real in the soccer world. I wish you both the best of both worlds...and also my sympathy goes out to the administrators, technical support, clerks, service workers, and everyone else involved in the production of the most popular sport in the world. May God Bless You All.

  8. James Madison, February 27, 2010 at 8:03 p.m.

    Instead of tilting unfairly against the players, the single entity system actually increases their collective bargaining leverage, provided the players stick together. It is just like bargaining with a factory. The players may have nowhere else to play, but the league has nowhere to go for credible scabs. If the league is pleading inability to pay, withholding financial information is a per se unfair labor practice. Plenty of trading room is available, e.g., earlier dates for guaranteed contract status and increased minimum salaries, both of which can be given without raising salary caps if the league will absorb a larger share of "super salaries."

    Jim Madison, Menlo Park

    pleads inability to pay, withholding

  9. Juan R, March 2, 2010 at 5:57 p.m.

    Thanks Paul Bryant, and you have a great analogy (not exactly the same, but I still really like it). Sure an engineer could go become an engineer in another country but it's tough to be forced into that position. Though there are many more engineering jobs and competitors, but it would be a great hardship. I think it's in the best interest for owners to allow this becuase then we'll have the best players in America, staying in America. Allowing us a better talent pool, and better entertainment. Good point James Madison, it does really force the players to stick together. Finally I just want to say that the players know their situation and I feel that they will make the best decision for their decision, whether it is to strike, continue in limbo with last year's CBA, or whatever they agree to. They know their situation and what is best for them. The Owners also face choices, and they have invested quite a bit in new stadiums (as well as municipalities). I hope they do what's right for soccer in the US, but what's right for soccer is for players to be paid a fair wage and to be allowed to sign with other clubs within MLS if one team does not put them under contract. Otherwise they are blackballing players.

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