In 1977, Ed Garvey, a labor lawyer and head of the newly formed National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), approached Washington Diplomats player John Kerr about forming a similar organization for the North American Soccer League. Added to the payroll of the NFLPA, Kerr went about polling his teammates and contacting other clubs about forming a players union.
By the fall of that year, the idea had gained enough support that representatives from all 18 NASL clubs met in Washington DC to construct the North American Soccer League Players Association (NASLPA).
On August 29, 1977 the NASLPA, with Ed Garvey and John Kerr serving as its directors asked for official recognition from league owners. As expected, the league refused. NASL owners felt a players union under the direction of the head of the NFL Players Union posed a threat to the integrity of the league. In short, the league objected to an NASL union run by an NFL union.
Having been denied official recognition for the better part of two years, the NASLPA called a strike at the beginning of the 1977 season. Lasting five days, the strike did little to interrupt play on the field, but did provide media attention for the union movement. With the owners still refusing to negotiate, the Players Union filed a claim with the Government agency in charge of such matters, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
On September 1, 1979 the National Labor Relations Board recognized the North American Soccer League Players Association as the official union of the NASL players. The NLRB had provided the NASLPA with the accreditation the league had refused them, and now had the right to negotiate on behalf of the players with the league.
Of course the league remained steadfast in its refusal to deal with Garvey, still perceiving him as a front for the NFL, who could play out labor scenarios and litigation through the NASL for the NFL’s benefit. Suspicions of tampering aside, on May 4, 1979 the NLRB ordered the NASL to begin collective bargaining with the NASLPA.
In an attempt to circumvent the NLRB ruling, the league filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals. Unfortunately for the league, they lost the appeal and this time they were ordered to turn over all league records of personnel salaries, stadium deals, and player contracts to the NASLPA. Two months later, the court cited the league and 21 of the now 24 franchises with labor violations. These charges included not recognizing a legal union and unfairly threatening and firing players that took part in the strike.
A year later, on August 12, 1980 the NASL finally met with the NASLPA to iron out a collective bargaining agreement over wages, arbitration, and insurance. Not surprisingly, the two sides could not reach an agreement and the NASLPA continued to press its cause in the courts.
On August 20, 1980, Federal Judge Constance Motley issued an injunction barring the NASL from holding another season until they completed collective bargaining with the union. As part of the ruling, Judge Motley also issued a ruling re-setting the league to its 1979 levels. This increased rosters, decreased the number of games played in a season, and gave the players association the right to end contracts. In short, it gave the NASLPA victory. Within the next few months, the first NASL collective bargaining agreement was agreed to as well.
Unfortunately, the state of the game in the early 1980’s was incapable of supporting neither owners nor a union. By the time the collective bargaining agreement ran out in November of 1983, the league had been reduced to nine struggling franchises. The boom was over, but the labor negotiations continued.
By early 1984, the owners informed the union that they would cut their losses and fold the league if the players did not accept a reduction in squad size from 24 to 19, a pay deduction of 15% for players making over $40,000, and a salary cap of $600,000 minus one star salary. The NASLPA voted unanimously to reject the plan.
Finally, on April 19, 1984 the players union agreed to accept the salary cap and roster reductions, but not the pay cut. The NASL folded after the 1984 season.