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Mar 4, 2014

Referee lockout looming in MLS

With the start of the MLS season just days away, the Professional Referees Organization, the company that employs MLS officials, is threatening to lock out referees belonging to the Professional Soccer Referees Association, according to Steve Taylor, the union's vice president.

PRO -- which is funded largely by MLS -- and the PSRA have been attempting to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement since last year, but talks have become increasingly contentious in recent weeks.

The PSRA voted 64-1 back on Feb. 21, authorizing its board to call a strike whenever it deemed it to be appropriate. The vote was largely in response to two grievances the PSRA filed with the National Labor Relations Board over what it alleges are unfair labor practices.

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.

Taylor met Tuesday with PRO GM Peter Walton as well as MLS Executive Vice President Todd Durbin. While Taylor characterized the talks as "professional" he said that no progress was made, and that he expected to hear from PRO later in the day that management was locking the referees out. A call to Walton was not immediately returned.

"There hasn't been any real movement on their part, and there has been on our part," said Taylor via telephone. "They don't seem to be interested in making a deal. They're stuck where they are and this is on both economic and non-economic issues."

Taylor added that among the items that are still being negotiated are payment for games, compensation insurance in case of injury, performance standards and evaluation, fitness and fitness testing, and travel standards.

Taylor also indicated that for months PRO has insisted it didn't have the money to meet the PSRA's demands, even though MLS is the main provider of funds for PRO. Yesterday, Taylor said that Durbin admitted the money was available, but MLS and PRO didn't want to pay it to the referees.

"They don't feel that we're worth it is what it kind of boils down to," said Taylor.

The union's assertion is that the timing of the threatened lockout is two-fold. Taylor indicated that the referees slated to work this weekend's games were set to travel to Florida on Wednesday for another training camp, and would then travel to various MLS cities for the games they were assigned to work. The timing of the lockout would appear to be so that the PSRA referees would be prevented from traveling. The lockout is also intended to preempt any strike that the PSRA might call, and allow replacement referees that PRO has been training to work games.

As for whether the union was actually going to call a strike, Taylor stated that this was an option the union was considering, but that he didn't know if the seven-member would have ultimately gone that route.

Now it appears that MLS is set to move forward with replacement referees. At a media event earlier in the day, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said, "We are absolutely in a position to have a contingency plan in the event those discussions don't end positively. We have so many things that we're gearing up for with our 2014 season. Nothing is going to stop us from having a strong opening."

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