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Major League Soccer referees vote for right to strike at any time

Referee Ismail Elfath reviews a play (VAR) before rewarding a penalty kick to New York City FC.
MLS referees are in the process of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.

The Professional Soccer Referees Association, the union that represents referees who work games in Major League Soccer, has voted "overwhelmingly" to authorize its board to initiate a strike whenever it is deemed appropriate, according to PSRA president Steven Taylor.

The PSRA is currently in negotiations with the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) -- which employs the referees in North America -- on a new collective bargaining agreement. The majority of PRO's funding comes from MLS with the U.S. Soccer Federation contributing as well. The PSRA's voting membership conducted the strike vote due to what it deems to be unfair labor practices committed by PRO.

Authorizing a strike due to unfair labor practices, as opposed to economic reasons, is relevant because if the PSRA executive board decides to strike, it would be 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.

The current CBA expires on Jan. 15, 2019, though the start of the MLS 2019 season isn't set to take place until March 2. During negotiations for the previous CBA back in 2014, PRO imposed a two-week lockout before reaching an agreement on March 19 of that year.

"We're just wanting to have a fair and level playing field from which to negotiate," said Taylor via telephone. "This is apparently a typical management tactic, and they did this same thing last time. They delay as much as they can and then try to jam a bad deal down our throats at the 11th hour. That's what we don't want."

"The Professional Referee Organization (PRO) continues to negotiate in good faith with the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA) for a new collective bargaining agreement, having met with the PSRA 19 times over the past eight months," said PRO in a statement on Tuesday. "The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) dismissed the PSRA's unfair labor practice charge and declined to take any action to pursue the PSRA's allegations, almost all of which were found meritless. PRO is committed to working in good faith to reach an agreement and hopes that the PSRA is as well."

Last September, the union filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleging that PRO engaged in coercive statements, a refusal to bargain/bad faith bargaining, and a refusal to furnish information. According to Taylor, PRO canceled bargaining sessions between July and late October and "was generally not bargaining in good faith."

The NLRB then issued what is called a "merit dismissal" in which PRO was found to have violated the law by failing to meet and delaying counter proposals, but because it was assured by PRO that the offending behavior would cease, the NLRB didn't file a complaint. The ruling still proved to be a catalyst for the strike vote.

"[PRO] was obviously held accountable and we're obligated to negotiation fairly for the best possible outcome for our members," said Taylor." They're attempting to circumvent that by not meeting with us for several months and not providing any substantive response to our proposals."

Taylor made it clear that he doesn't hold PRO General Manager Howard Webb responsible for the delay tactics, and rather finds fault with PRO's attorneys.

A three-day bargaining session is scheduled to begin this Wednesday with the help of federal mediator Scott Beckenbaugh. Another four-day session is scheduled to begin on Jan. 3. Taylor's concern is there isn't enough time before the expiration of the current CBA.

"I think that we're close on a number of things. We're making progress," said Taylor. "But as I've been saying since March when we started meetings, time is running short."

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