By Paul Kennedy
As American sports go, pro soccer
has had relative labor peace.
Since the only work stoppage -- the NASL strike of 1979 -- there have been two NFL strikes and one lockout, three NBA lockouts and one NHL strike and three
As for baseball, there have been five work stoppages, the longest a 232-day strike that wiped out the entire 1994 postseason. MLB labor relations were so contentious that the
2002 collective bargaining agreement was the first in 30 years that was reached without a work stoppage.
The difference between pro soccer and the other American sports has been that
there's money -- lots of money -- to strike over.
It reminds me of a conversation I had with John Kerr Sr.
in 1988. Kerr, a star on the first New
York Cosmos championship team in 1972, took up union organizing after his playing career ended and headed labor organizations for players in the NASL, the indoor MISL and MLS.
MISL was the place to be after the demise of the NASL, but it was still a struggle. In 1988, the owners were threatening to shut down the league if the players did not accept deep cuts, bringing the
salary cap down about 20 percent to less than $900,000 per team.
The MISL union held out, refusing to bargain until owners settled some nagging grievances: money owed five injured
players, contributions to the players' pension fund in arrears, a share of a licensing fee that the league got for a deal with a trading card company and the players felt they were entitled to.
Sponsorship deals were few and far between in those days.
On the big issue, slashing the salary cap, owners had the players backed into a corner, but their threat to shut down the league
still rang hollow.
"The reality is," Kerr said with chagrin, "if the owners paid the players nothing, they'd still be losing money."
The only strike in pro soccer history
wasn't about money, it was about recognition. The NASL Players Association had no choice. Owners refused to bargain even though more than 90 percent of players had voted for representation and the
National Labor Relations Board certified the vote.
The NASL strike, agreed upon by a 252-113 vote of the players, lasted all of five days. Weekend matches went ahead, and the strike was
quickly doomed. More than 100 players who voted to strike wouldn't honor it.
Some clubs fielded their entire first teams; others filled out out lineups with amateur players signed to
one-game contracts. To force them to negotiate with the players, the NLRB had to take the owners to Federal court -- and they still stalled.
If MLS players strike next week, it won't be
about money, either. It will be because they've been backed into a corner on a more fundamental issue.
Pro soccer has come a long way from the days of the NASL and MISL. The revenues most
MLS clubs are bringing in pales still in comparison to those of clubs in the other major sports leagues with bigger TV deals or longer seasons or both.
But the money coming in is not
insignificant. If MLS owners can afford to sign Designated Players, they'll likely agree to a nice bump in the salary cap and minimum compensation. That's not the issue.
For NASL owners,
it was an all-or-nothing proposition in 1979: they wouldn't recognize the union. For MLS owners, it will be another all-or-nothing proposition: they refuse to grant any form of free agency.