Commentary

U.S. women strengthen their influence and power with new CBA deal

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

It took a lot longer than it should have, but U.S. Soccer and the United States Women’s National Team Players’ Association finally hammered out a collective bargaining agreement.

The new deal will upgrade the women’s per-diem payments and travel accommodations to equal those of the men’s national team, as well as continue U.S. Soccer’s subsidy of their salaries to play in the National Women’s Soccer League. The women’s bonuses for appearances and results have also been increased, and the federation has agreed to extend its support of women’s players when they are pregnant or injured.

A new CBA marks an important step forward for the women’s team and U.S. Soccer, which took a lot of criticism for some conditions it cannot control, such as the vast disparity in earning power between male and female professional players. The men and women do not share the same workplace or responsibilities -- just look at the differences in salaries and working conditions of Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey compared to those of Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd -- and thus legitimate claims made by women earning less than their male counterparts in businesses and industries in which they share duties and responsibilities do not apply.

There are inequities to be addressed and corrected, which in some cases the new CBA does, but these gains have been made, in large part, by the women altering their strategy. By taking control of their own cause they regained momentum they had lost by demanding rather than negotiating. In seeking more control and power by changing leadership two and a half years ago they had instead ceded credence to their cause.

Suffice to say a hard-line stance taken by the team failed. A threatened boycott of the Olympic Games and subsequent elimination in the quarterfinals eradicated much of their leverage, since the boycott threat was a hollow gesture the players themselves never believed in. Refusing to play would have soured much of the goodwill they had generated in the public sphere and also greatly lessened their marketability, since most of them play in the NWSL, which is plagued by skimpy coverage in major media outlets and low attendances.

It was one of many poor tactics chosen by former executive director Rich Nichols, and once he’d been fired in December and replaced by Becca Roux, the team’s message changed.

“Equal pay” has been replaced by “fair and equitable,” which brought the women back to reality and the two sides to the bargaining table. It’s hard to believe but true that the women’s players needed so long to acknowledge that they and the men work, live, and exist in utterly separate universes.

Now, do the women deserve the same per-diem payments and travel accommodations as do the men? Of course, despite the fact that both on and off the field, the men endure much harsher conditions. As an example, the men play 18 World Cup qualifying games, half of them outside the U.S. The women play a handful of qualifiers at home and never in places like Mexico City, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, San Salvador, Mazatenango, Guatemala City, or Kingston.

This was a simple matter of equal pay very easy to justify, but the women -- for whatever reason --  did not insist on those terms after their CBA expired in December, 2012. Operating under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) since March, 2013, the two sides talked sporadically during the next 18 months but the women’s tone hardened once Nichols had been hired -- upon the recommendation of goalkeeper Hope Solo -- to replace John Langel in November 2014.

Late in the game, the women objected to playing on artificial turf at the upcoming 2015 World Cup in Canada and some criticism fell upon U.S. Soccer, which was not a party to the arrangement brokered by FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association. The sticky issue of the women playing friendlies and other matches on turf fields in the U.S., as scheduled by the federation, whereas men’s games often used a temporary grass field laid over the artificial surface had been a recurring problem.

Going forward, U.S. Soccer will have to either account for the additional cost of temporary grass fields for both senior teams, persuade the players to play on turf, or pick only facilities with grass surfaces. Temporary grass fields are not a panacea, especially if rain is a possibility, but this is one issue the federation let drag on until the women refused to play on a deteriorating turf surface in Honolulu in December 2015.

Rather than press their case for better CBA terms after it won the 2015 Women’s World Cup -- in front of big crowds and on turf -- when their leverage was strong, the women tried to use their political allies and public forums to intimidate U.S. Soccer. Players appeared on TV shows. Political leaders -- most of them ignorant of how U.S. Soccer generates revenue and budgets its resources -- lobbied on their behalf.

In March 2016, the USWNT CBA leadership filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint for the USWNT over inequality in pay and treatment. Included in the complaint are the issues of compensation, accommodations, and working conditions, which in the case of soccer players does include facilities and playing surfaces. Agreement on a new CBA does not dismiss the complaint, so both sides will have to wait to see how that skirmish in their battle turns out.

Just how much did Nichols harm the process? He was jettisoned in December, 25 months after being hired. In less than four months, the women reorganized internally with new leadership, hired Roux as interim executive director and by all accounts came to terms amiably with their soccer federation, which spends far more money on women’s and girls’ soccer programs than any other country and will spend even more in the future.

The women's team is certainly a major factor in how U.S. Soccer values its TV, sponsorship, and marketing deals, but since most federation revenue streams are bound to those of Major League Soccer, untangling a creditable figure for the women's senior team by itself is nettlesome if not impossible. Still, in areas of direct comparison regarding expenditures, such as per-diem compensation and travel arrangements, the women have attained what they deserve. Bonuses and other compensation matters will always be contentious, due to the vast disparities in scheduling and logistics involved for the men's and women's teams.

Much of how the federation does business came under scrutiny during his long process and in the long run U.S. Soccer should benefit from a few tweaks and modifications of its procedures. It did not overreact when Solo and other players claimed that disciplinary action and coaching decisions affecting them stemmed from their involvement in the labor negotiations, and stayed in the background as players such as Abby Wambach and Alejandro Bedoya traded potshots in social media.

What many observers regarded as a rift between the women’s and men’s teams really does not exist. For the most part, they are greatly supportive of each other and while the women now acknowledge they can’t have what the men get in the open market, they certainly have strengthened their influence and power within U.S. Soccer.
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