Behind the scenes of CBA negotiations

[MLS] More money and more rights for players came out of the protracted, contentious CBA negotiations between MLS and the players union, and perhaps more importantly there also emerged a stronger bond between the two sides.

“Most of the players felt in the past that the league wasn’t really listening to them, that a lot of what we said was just part of the negotiations,” says Kansas City defender Jimmy Conrad, one of four players who serve on the union’s executive committee. “But what came out of the last few days in addition to a new CBA is a belief that we can work together and make the league better for both sides.”

Compensation will be greater – the salary cap and minimum salary will increase for 2010 and will continue to increase in subsequent seasons – and there will be more leverage for players whose options are not picked up or who are waived. The percentage of players with portions of their contracts guaranteed will at least double and could eventually triple from the approximately 20 percent figure of the past few seasons. Players who reach benchmarks of age and league service will qualify for guaranteed contracts and less stringent conditions for option years.

For 2010, the salary cap will be $2.55 million per team (it was $2.32 million in 2009) and the minimum salary for non-developmental players is $40,000 ($34,000 in 2009). Each will increase at a basic five percent per year, though for older players the minimum will be greater. At that growth rate, the salary cap will be approximately $3.1 million in the final year of the CBA, and the minimum will be slightly more than $46,000.

Pending ratification by the league Board of Governors and a players’ vote, a new CBA will be in force until the end of 2014. Commissioner Don Garber and President Mark Abbott headed the league’s negotiation group; MLSPU general counsel Jon Newman and executive director Bob Foose led the players’ team.

“I think there’s a much greater understanding on the part of Don Garber and the owners now about why the players were so willing to strike,” said Houston goalie and union executive committee member Pat Onstad. “There were some things we didn’t get that we wanted, but this is a CBA, and it’s kind of like what happens during a season – you have some wins, and a few ties, and a loss here and there – but for the most part I have to say we’re ecstatic with what the two sides agreed upon, especially considering where we were Monday and Tuesday. At that point, I have to be honest, it didn’t look good about getting a deal done.”

Two days of meetings last Monday and Tuesday did little to move the sides closer together, but protracted sessions over the next few days – as nearly two dozen players flew to Washington, D.C. to join the executive committee members already present – yielded an agreement by Saturday morning.

“But starting on Wednesday night, and then into Thursday and Friday, there was enough movement on the major issues that I felt we were going to reach an agreement,” said Onstad. “I give the mediator [George C. Cohen] a lot of credit, and I must say a lot of credit has to go to Don Garber.

“I don’t know if he really knew why the players felt so strongly about some of the issues, but he’s been a lot more involved in the past couple of months. Once he’d sat down and heard some of the stories we were telling about what had happened to this player and that player, he realized, ‘The players are pissed off, and I understand that.’”

'LIKE JURY DUTY.' As mediator, Cohen set agendas and topics for each session, hopeful that by forging consensus on minor issues – such as per-diem payments, etc. -- he could generate momentum heading into discussions of the major sticking points. Members of the two sides worked in various groups and combinations, while the player representatives not on the executive committee – which also includes Chris Klein and Landon Donovan of the Galaxy -- waited for developments.

“That’s what somebody said, it’s exactly like waiting for jury duty,” said Conrad of a large room where players would wait while union officials and executive committee members bargained and haggled. “Every so often, the mediator or Bob Foose or Jon Newman or one of the executive committee [members] would come into the room and tell us what was going on and ask, ‘What do you guys think of this?’, and we talk and try to thrash something out that they could take back.”

One facet of league policy that won’t change is what happens to players who leave while out of contract, train or play in Europe, and come back to MLS. Their rights will be retained by their last MLS club as is currently the case.

Benchmarks were established by which players 24 or older with at least three years of league experience would be guaranteed for the final year of a four-year deal; for those 25 and older with at least four years of experience, no more than two unilateral option years can be written into their contracts. Many players currently work under four-year deals, the last three of which consist of unilateral options controlled by the league.

Players who hit those benchmarks also qualify for guaranteed contracts if they re-sign with the league. For those players, if an option is picked up, the contract is guaranteed for that year. Most players have worked under “semi-guaranteed” contracts, by which if a team cut a player prior to a contract-guarantee date of July 1, it could keep his rights without any salary obligation until it elected to trade him or waive him or offer him a lower-salaried contract.

“Getting rid of that contract-guarantee date was huge,” said Conrad. “Now a team has to decide if they want a guy, and if they do and he’s old enough and has enough years of experience in the league, they have to pay him.”

Said Onstad, “This was a wake-up call to the league, and to the league’s credit, they and Garber sat down and listened to us. Both sides set aside their differences and worked out something that is good for the players and the league, and they’re definitely going to see the benefits of a happier work force.”

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