The Professional Soccer Referees Association, the union that represents referees who work games in Major League Soccer, appears to be one step closer to initiating a work stoppage.
This past week, the union has conducted a strike vote related to what it believes is unfair labor practices committed by the Professional Referees Organization, which employs the referees in North America. The majority of PRO's funding comes from MLS, with the U.S. Soccer Federation contributing as well. The union's members voted 64-1 in favor of authorizing its executive board to call a strike whenever it deems it to be appropriate. Fourteen union members didn't cast votes.
Calling a strike due to unfair labor practices, as opposed to economic reasons, is significant, in that it would make it illegal for PRO to hire permanent replacements. If the PSRA members decided to end the strike, PRO would be obligated to hire the referees back immediately. If PRO failed to do so, it would be liable for back pay and benefits.
PSRA vice president Steven Taylor said that he was "cautiously optimistic" with how negotiations were progressing, but that the union opted to take a strike vote due to a pair of grievances it had filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
The first grievance alleges that PRO was unavailable for meetings, failed to bargain in good faith, and engaged in regressive bargaining -- whereby tentative agreements were taken off the table. The second and more serious charge alleges that at a Feb. 1 training camp held in Florida, a member of PRO management threatened upwards of 10 referees with reprisals if they continued to engage in union activities.
"The management rep met with the referees in a one-on-one setting and made threatening comments to the effect that if they weren't careful about their participation in union activities, their future career in terms of refereeing in MLS could be in jeopardy," Taylor said. "Some of them were told flat out that they would not work in the league anymore if they weren't careful."
The first grievance was filed on Jan. 30, but it was the episode in Florida that was the catalyst for the union taking a strike vote.
"We're concerned that PRO's pattern of unfair labor practices could continue, and continue to hamper negotiations," Taylor said via telephone. "While we have been making progress in both economic and non-economic categories, there are still a bunch of areas where we're not at the finish line. Our concern is that [PRO] will try to drag this out as long as possible, and not get anywhere."
A call and subsequent email to PRO general manager Peter Walton were not immediately returned, but Taylor made it clear he hopes to avoid a work stoppage "at almost all costs." That said, he stated that a strike by MLS referees would be "10 times worse" than the NFL referees strike that took place in 2012. In that instance, replacement referees hired by NFL made numerous incorrect calls, including one that wrongly awarded a game-winning touchdown as time expired to the Seattle Seahawks in a game against the Green Bay Packers.
It doesn't take much of a mental leap to think of what would happen should PRO employ replacement referees.
"We are very concerned about the well-being of the players, especially in a World Cup year," Taylor said. "We really want to avoid a work stoppage, because we don't think the players will be particularly safe if they've got high school referees working the games."
One MLS coach who asked not to be identified indicated he didn't think safety would be that much of an issue, but agreed that using replacement referees would be problematic.
"I think the gap between professional referees and what's next would have a [significant] effect on the game in a negative way," he said. "I think there would be more controversial calls on a game-by-game basis, and even a half-by-half basis, than there are now. Experience is a huge thing."
Negotiations between PRO and the PSRA are set to resume next Tuesday.