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MLS referees authorize potential strike, file labor complaint as work stoppage looms

The Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA), the labor union representing professional referees in North America and Canada, has voted to authorize a potential strike amid ongoing negotiations with the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) over a new CBA, according to multiple sources briefed on the matter.

The vote among union membership, which was unanimous, sets the stage for MLS to potentially need replacement referees to open its 2024 season, which starts on Feb. 21 as Lionel Messi and Inter Miami takes on Real Salt Lake.

In addition, the PSRA has filed an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), alleging that PRO engaged in “direct dealing,” bypassing union leadership and communicating directly with PSRA members.

The previous collective bargaining agreement between the PSRA and PRO, the MLS-funded body that manages professional officiating in the United States and Canada, expired on Jan. 15. The two sides agreed to a temporary extension as that deadline approached, allowing referees to report for fitness testing and preseason training camp, which wrapped up last weekend. That extension expires on Jan. 31, with negotiations between the PSRA and PRO resuming tomorrow.

Multiple sources familiar with the still-ongoing negotiations characterize the two sides as “closer” than two weeks ago, but only marginally so. The Athletic reported earlier this month that the PSRA had asked for pay scale increases of up to 90%, with the largest increases being reserved for its lowest-paid members. PRO countered with an offer that featured single-digit increases.

While the two sides have narrowed that gulf, it does not appear that there has been significant movement. The PSRA has also pushed for increases in benefits and modifications to scheduling, training camps and travel arrangements.

Negotiations between the sides have been further impacted by the NLRB filing, which alleges PRO contacted union members directly, potentially in an attempt to poll them or gather information on demands or potential offers, according to a copy of the complaint that was acquired by The Athletic. The complaint alleges that the communications occurred “on or around Aug. 27, 2023, Sept. 8, 2023, and possible other dates,” and that the PRO representative who approached the PSRA employees is also a member of its negotiating committee.

“In recent negotiations, PRO’s representatives have stated at the table, in no uncertain terms, that their ‘customer,’ MLS, is not willing to pay materially more for officiating services,” the PSRA said in a statement. “PRO has also stated, on multiple occasions, that PSRA needs to ‘get realistic’ about its proposals. Meanwhile, MLS continues to celebrate its skyrocketing expansion, viewership reach and record-breaking revenues while boasting about and benefiting from the notoriety of recent outstanding performances of PSRA officials in the biggest competitions worldwide.”

A representative for PRO declined to comment when reached by The Athletic. MLS did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

If MLS feels the PSRA and PRO are still far from an agreement as the opening match of its season approaches, the league might opt to pre-emptively lock its officials out, as it did in 2014 when there was last a referee work stoppage in American soccer. Doing so would allow the league to proceed with plans for replacement referees, and give it a bit more time to seek out those officials.

During that 2014 work stoppage, the PSRA said in a release, the error rate of key decisions (red cards, penalty calls, key offside decisions and more) in matches “skyrocketed.” A potential work stoppage this season could also further complicate the implementation of MLS’ newest rule changes: measures against time wasting during substitutions and injuries that are set to make their debut in 2024. Those rules were trialed in MLS Next Pro, the league’s developmental arm, over the last year and a half.

“We knew the frustration levels were high, because these officials have not benefited from the growth of our sport and PSRA was forced to file an unfair labor practice charge to address alleged direct dealing committed by certain PRO managers,” Peter Manikowski, president and lead negotiator of PSRA, said in a statement. “PSRA officials are committed professionals focused on perfecting their craft. Yet, as the focus should be on bargaining toward a new collective agreement, PSRA has had to address PRO’s alleged unfair labor practices, which undermine the bargaining process.”

Notably, the first match that could be affected by a potential work stoppage features the highest-profile player in the history of the league. The MLS regular season begins on Feb. 21, when Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami hosts Real Salt Lake. Teams are currently in preseason preparing for the 2024 campaign and the potential work stoppage would mean clubs need to find replacement referees for preseason games as well.

The PSRA is the union that represents professional referees across Major League Soccer, the second and third-tier United Soccer Leagues and the National Women’s Soccer League. PRO, founded in 2012 by MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation, oversees the professional officiating landscape in the United States, including assigning games, assessing and educating officials, and identifying new talent. An associated organization, PRO2, oversees officiating in the NWSL, USL, and MLS Next Pro. The PSRA and PRO2 ratified a CBA of their own last year.

(Photo: Jeremy Olson/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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