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Report: MLS referees union readying for strike

And you thought you’d have to wait til this time next year for a CBA dispute that might impact MLS.

MLS: MLS Cup-Portland Timbers vs Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

We’re entering MLS’ CBA season: the league’s collective bargaining agreement with its players will need to be renewed before MLS 2020 gets underway, so look forward to a steadily escalating series of reports about the progress of those negotiations as both sides test each other’s willingness to compromise.

And there may be some new CBAs entering on the US soccer scene: the USL Championship (the rebranded top-tier of what is a now a three-tiered USL set-up) has recently voluntarily recognized a players union, with the Washington Post reporting there is intention to get a collective bargaining agreement hammered out before that league kicks off in March; NWSL has also recently recognized a union for its players, though Howard Megdal has reported for Forbes that the NWSL Players Association has no immediate plans to push for a CBA.

As a prelude to what it is to come perhaps, and of significance to all those leagues since they all need referees in order to play their games, the Professional Soccer Referees Association has announced it is readying for strike action as efforts to negotiate a new CBA with the Professional Referee Organization are not progressing as desired:

Last week, the Professional Soccer Referees Association (“PSRA”) members covered by the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) with the Professional Referee Organization (“PRO”) voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike authorization. This vote comes on the heels of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) ruling in favor of PSRA regarding a recent Unfair Labor Practice charge, and provides the PSRA Executive Board with the authority to call a strike to protest PRO’s unfair labor practices and unlawful bargaining tactics.

A report by Jonathan Tannenwald for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News provides more context to PSRA’s side of the dispute. In a nutshell, the union is frustrated by what it perceives to be delaying tactics on the part of PRO, and as such it has armed itself with the necessary authorization to strike if negotiations don’t make improved progress in the near future. The PSRA’s CBA with PRO - which is the organization that manages referees in MLS, USL, and NWSL (and for a few other North American soccer institutions as well) - expires on January 15, 2019.

The last time PRO needed a new CBA with the referees it exists to manage, negotiations were unable to prevent a work stoppage and MLS 2014 kicked off with replacement refs. And one of those replacement refs decided New York Red BullsJamison Olave had committed a foul in the box by...um...standing. Or as Simon Borg perceived for MLS Instant Replay, leaning:

The call handed Colorado Rapids an equalizer from the penalty spot, costing RBNY two points: there are consequences to using replacement refs.

Of course, regular PRO refs cost RBNY points - and playoff series - all the time, so maybe it really is of no great consequence whether PSRA keeps its members away from MLS 2019 for a while. Indeed, the argument that PRO refs are clearly and obviously the best qualified for the task of officiating in MLS is somewhat undermined by the fact that the replacement ref who fumbled the Olave call back in 2014 was Alan Kelly: the reigning MLS Referee of the Year and winner of that award for three of the last four seasons. Maybe PRO is hoping for another strike so it can unearth another Alan Kelly.

Or maybe it already has the next Kelly in mind: Kelly was a PRO employee - an assistant training manager - when he crossed the picket line in 2014, as noted by a scathing review of his credentials in the PSRA’s pithily titled “MLS Scab Referee Details” document, issued during the union’s last fight with PRO:

Kelly is a PRO employee, having been hired as their Assistant Training Manager effective January 2, 2014. Kelly moved to the United States from Ireland. He has no previous MLS experience, and was demoted from the UEFA ‘Elite Development” referee group to the “1st category” group in 2013.

Kelly’s United States work visa status is unknown at this time, nor is it clear if he is a registered referee with US Soccer. Kelly attended the PRO MLS Referee preseason camp in February in Management capacity. However, he did not complete the fitness test, which PRO requires all referees to pass before assigning matches to them.

Expect similar spiciness if ongoing CBA negotiations lead to another work stoppage.