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MLS set for stand-in refs after union rejects CBA

MLS set for stand-in refs after union rejects CBA

  • Jeff Carlisle, U.S. soccer correspondentFeb 17, 2024, 10:20 AM ET

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      Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC.

The Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA), the union that represents officials working in MLS, the NWSL, and the USL, rejected a proposed new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) put before it by the union’s executive board, and negotiated with the Professional Referees Organization (PRO), the referees’ employer.

Around 98% of the union membership participated in the vote, with 95.8% voting to reject ratification. The vote took place Thursday and Friday, and in response, the PRO is now saying it will lock out the referees starting at midnight ET on Saturday and begin the season with replacement officials.

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“The skyrocketing growth of MLS has significantly increased demands on officials mentally and physically, and as such has increased demands on both our professional and personal time,” Peter Manikowski, president and lead negotiator for PSRA, said in a news release.

“Our members are asking not only for fair compensation at a time when the league is reporting record growth, but also for the ability to take care of themselves on the road and at home to continue officiating at the highest level that this sport demands.

“Feedback from our members indicates the failed ratification was driven by issues with the compensation and benefits PRO was offering, as well as a lack of improvements to travel, scheduling and other quality-of-life issues.”

PRO general manager Mark Geiger said in a statement, “We made meaningful progress during recent bargaining, agreeing to fair pay increases, and addressing many of the PSRA’s concerns with respect to non-economic items.

“This represented approximately a 25% overall increase over 2023 when comparing salary, retainers, game fees, and benefits plus the addition of business class travel for the MLS Cup Playoffs. The result of the membership vote is disappointing.”

A PRO spokesperson told ESPN that the organization had offered the PSRA a no strike/no lockout agreement as a means of continuing negotiations, but that was also rejected by the PSRA. Manikowski responded by saying the no strike/no lockout offer was a “poison pill” for union membership, and was accompanied by, among other things, a demand that the PSRA accept no raises for 2024.

The PSRA membership voted to authorize a potential strike back on Jan. 22.

Geiger said the rejection of the no strike/no lockout proposal which, along with the PSRA’s public strike authorization “has created significant risk as the 2024 season begins. We are left with no choice but to institute a lockout and use qualified non-bargaining unit officials so that games can go ahead as scheduled.”

The MLS regular season begins Feb. 21 when Inter Miami take on Real Salt Lake.

The previous CBA between the PSRA and PRO — which employs the referees in North America — expired Jan. 15, but the PSRA and PRO agreed to multiple extensions to continue operating under the terms of the old CBA. This allowed referees to attend training camps and some preseason games, as well as continue to receive benefits while negotiations continued.

The PSRA announced Feb. 14 that it had reached a tentative agreement with the PRO, which raised hopes that a deal would soon be ratified. But in an open letter to the referee community that same day, the PSRA said, “We will not speculate whether the officials in MLS will ratify it or not, but rest assured we are planning ahead for all possible outcomes.”

According to a PRO spokesperson, the offer on the table contains an average compensation increase of around 25%. This includes a 10-33% increase for referees, a 75-104% increase for assistant referees, and 15-100% increase for video assistant referees. The deal also called for annual increases in compensation of 3%, except for 2027, which would see an increase of 7%. Manikowski would only confirm that the offer contained compensation increases for each category of referee.

In another sign that the two sides are still far apart, the PSRA has filed a second unfair labor practice charge against the PRO with the National Labor Relations Board. The filing, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN, alleges that the PRO’s general manager sent a letter to union membership on Feb. 9 stating that if the tentative agreement wasn’t approved, it would lock the officials out, withdraw its existing proposal and agree only to substantially inferior terms.

The PSRA complaint contends this constitutes “regressive bargaining, violates [the PRO’s] obligation to bargain in good faith, and constitutes reprisals against PSRA members for engaging in protected activity.”

The first unfair labor practice filing, dated Jan. 5, contended that the PRO called PSRA members individually, without a PSRA representative present, to discuss bargaining proposals. This is called “direct dealing” in labor law parlance, and is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

The PRO last locked out the referees over CBA talks in 2014, which lasted two weeks before reaching an agreement on March 19 of that year.

“This game evolves rapidly and play happens quickly,” Manikowski said. “We think replacement officials generally do not have the current experience and level of fitness required to do our jobs.

“The sport and everyone involved — players, coaches and fans — deserve referees who are the best in North America at knowing the MLS game and its current rules and applications.”

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