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MLS, referees back at bargaining table

Major League Soccer and the league’s referees were back to the bargaining table on Wednesday, accompanied by a federal mediator, a source told ESPNFC.com.

The two sides resumed discussions Wednesday in Iselin, N.J., and are scheduled to continue on Thursday.

The hope is that some progress can be made in ending a lockout that began last Friday. MLS started the 2014 regular season on March 8 with replacement referees, a decision that is expected to continue into the league’s slate of games this weekend.

The news that negotiations have resumed comes amid escalating tensions between the Professional Referees Organization, the entity that employs the referees, and the Professional Soccer Referees Association, the referees’ union.

On Monday, PRO, which is financed by MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation, filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board. It alleged that a PSRA member told potential replacement referees via email that if they worked as replacement referees, they would not be able to work for PRO once the lockout was over.

"This is not true and the threat is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act," said PRO GM Peter Walton via email. PSRA vice president Steve Taylor countered that the email was “informational and non-threatening”.

The PSRA supplied the text it said was from the offending email, in which the PSRA member stated, "Because this is a lockout and not a strike, by law once it's over PRO cannot retain any of those [replacement] referees. Everyone [sic] of them will be finished."

The PSRA has two grievances of its own pending with the NLRB. The first 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.

In terms of the current discussions, the source told ESPNFC.com that Scot L. Beckenbaugh, the acting director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services, is now taking part in the discussions. The FMCS is a government agency tasked with helping to facilitate labor negotiations.

Back in 2010, the FMCS helped broker a deal between MLS and the MLS Players Association.

According to the FMCS’s web site, Beckenbaugh has been with the organization since 1988. In that time, he has mediated national master agreements in the aerospace, professional sports, cereal, heavy equipment manufacturing, aluminum, grocery, health care, and meatpacking industries.

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