By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 4, 2020) US Soccer Players - Labor negotiations are often bruising, even brutally so, though not always. Sometimes workers and bosses emerge from their bargaining talks like prizefighters after a bout, bloodied, exhausted, perhaps bitter. At other times it's more like students who've just done an all-nighter to complete a project, worn down but relieved to have worked together towards a satisfactory conclusion.
That second scenario has, unfortunately, become rarer in modern US history. Only a few months ago, it seemed it could apply to Major League Soccer's latest collective bargaining process with its players' union, the MLSPA. When the two parties reached agreement in early February, reactions and coverage suggested a markedly more positive tone than the last round of talks in 2015. That's when federal mediators got involved. Players voted to authorize a strike action as the haggling went down to the wire.
This time around, ESPN's report alluded to "good vibes." MLSPA executive director Bob Foose said he and his members were "thrilled." Players spoke of "broad progress" and being in a "much better spot." The league seemed to have signed on for spending increases that would directly benefit their efforts to produce a more compelling product for their television and commercial partners. For once, a win-win seemed to have materialized.
Fast-forward to this week, when the two sides completed an agreement on the specifics of their return to play following the coronavirus shutdown. Now, this relationship appears to have degraded towards the pugilistic comparison.
"What we were shown from the league, frankly, wasn't good enough," Nashville SC and USMNT fullback Daniel Lovitz, one of his team's player reps, told media in a conference call on Wednesday. "It was an insistence on making the discourse adversarial. It was disrespectful at times. It felt like we weren't really trying to get a deal done. We didn't expect it to be nice by any means. But the flow of information, the way things progressed, especially within the last week, was unacceptable."
His teammate Eric Miller echoed that anger, tweeting that "the process and tactics used by MLS left a mark." What happened to spark such resentment when, according to Garber, the CBA was not being renegotiated but merely adjusted to reflect the new post-COVID landscape? In short, Garber and his owners threatened to use the nuclear option.
This time around, the league's executives entered this scenario with less leverage than they're used to having in labor talks. With their main MLS revenue streams suddenly and almost completely going dry, the league's owners were craving short-term financial relief. They also wanted something related for the future, a force majeure clause like many other pro leagues have to give themselves an escape hatch for these kinds of disruptions.
What lever could MLS press so that the players would voluntarily give back some of what they'd already bargained for? The fact that the new CBA hadn't been fully ratified. So the league could threaten a lockout. That would immediately cut off both pay and benefits, most crucially health insurance, for the players. As was first reported in the media and later specifically confirmed by Garber, he tabled that threat over the weekend, alongside an ultimatum with a tight deadline for acceptance. This tactic was poorly received, to put it mildly.
"I was disgusted when I read the email. I thought it was a bullying tactic," Atlanta United rep Jeff Larentowicz told reporters on Thursday. "I think it showed incredible understanding and resolve from the players to stand up to that."
According to the players, it was a drastic message at a moment when they thought a deal was close at hand. If there was any lack of unity at that point, this threat swept it away. MLSPA dug in on force majeure and, at least on some level, called the league's bluff as an outcry arose among sectors of the media and fanbase. So much for win-win.
"In the grand scheme of things we all understood when this process started that that was an eventuality, in terms of that being the hard truth that we may have to face, or on the league side of something that they might have to introduce as a way for them to cut their losses and to financially stabilize a really terrible situation," said Lovitz. "But until Sunday it wasn't explicitly communicated. And it finally was, and the conditions and the tone that it was communicated to us, given the scheme of what was happening with the negotiations at that point, was to put it lightly, a shock to the players. We thought we were very close to having a reasonable deal, and then we were put on a 24-hour shot clock for all intents and purposes. And we were told that we would be locked out if we didn't agree to the terms, and it was a best and final offer from the league. It was unfortunate things took that turn."
The wider context of the lockout threat is important. Healthcare is a particularly essential commodity as a global viral pandemic rages. That's especially true for players asked to leave their homes and families for up to a month to play an unprecedented summer tournament under quarantine conditions in Orlando, Florida. It's noteworthy that NWSL, facing a similar situation with their Challenge Cup event in Utah, has given their players free choice to participate or not with no penalty, financial or otherwise. All this is happening at a time of extra upheaval for many MLS players and families, particularly those from abroad.
Thanks to the travel restrictions imposed both in North America and beyond, many of the companions of this season's new arrivals from overseas have only now begun settling in their home markets. Imagine uprooting your life to a new country, often with an unfamiliar language and culture, then facing weeks of fear, delay, and uncertainty due to COVID-19. Then you finally reach your destination and learn your partner has to leave you on your own for a month due to the Orlando tournament. Then you're told the whole plan may be thrown into chaos all over again by your significant other's billionaire employers cutting off his wages and insurance coverage via lockout.
This would fly in the face of the reputation for organization and professionalism that MLS has cultivated for two decades in contrast to the wild-west mentality found in many other parts of the soccer world. It suggests that the league's wealthy owners might trash the whole endeavor simply to save some money. That keeping the games going is not really all that important after all.
"Force majeure ended up being the hill, essentially, that the league wanted to die on," said Lovitz, "in terms of what they wanted to push, what they wanted to give themselves."
Reports suggest that the players' concessions will save MLS north of $100 million. On the surface it might appear to be another example of the unusually cooperative spirit between the league and its players' union. However, the long-range damage that the tenor of this negotiation could inflict on that relationship may prove much more costly.
"We hope that in time the wounds from this process heal, but it's really tough to hear the league say that they are interested in using the partnership between the league and the players to help grow the league into what they want it to be, when they continually show us what they think of the partnership that we share," said Lovitz. "We were shown their true colors in that moment."
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Observations from the Bundesliga’s return to play
- Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT at the 18-month mark
- Eyeing the tightrope: MLS looks for a way to play
- USL tries its hand at improving American youth development with new league
Graphic courtesy of the MLSPA