MLS referees work stoppage ‘imminent’ amid ongoing CBA negotiations: Sources

Pablo Maurer and Tom Bogert

Negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement between the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) and the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA) have not resulted in a new deal and, barring changes over the next 10 days, a work stoppage feels “imminent,” said once source briefed on the negotiations. Another source characterizes the negotiations between the two sides as being “a very discouraging process so far.”

If it drags on, a work stoppage could leave MLS needing to find replacement officials at the start of its season and preseason. The current CBA between the PSRA and PRO, which has been in place since early 2019, expires on Jan. 15. The MLS season begins on Feb. 21 when Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami hosts Real Salt Lake.

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.

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“We are bargaining for a contract with the same intensity, focus and dedication we bring to every game as highly trained officials who live for this sport,” PSRA president Peter Manikowski said in a statement to The Athletic. “Right now the parties remain far apart on matters of great importance to our members’ lives and livelihoods. We are frustrated, but remain committed.”

PRO will soon face an additional challenge, as the U.S. Soccer Federation will withdraw its financial support for the organization in the near future, multiple sources briefed on that decision said on Friday. The federation provided nearly $2 million in funding for PRO in 2022, according to its most recent publicly available financial statements.

A PRO spokesperson declined to comment to The Athletic except to confirm that CBA conversations are ongoing. MLS and the USSF declined to comment.

Multiple sources said this week that the PSRA has a work stoppage fund, with one source characterizing it as “sizable enough for an extended stoppage.” That source described PSRA’s membership as being largely aligned in their unhappiness with PRO’s current offer in CBA negotiations.

“Together with others in this league, we have a large role in the gaining popularity and success of this sport,” read PSRA’s statement. “Now, it is time for the Professional Referee Organization and Major League Soccer and to show officials that they, too, value the contributions our members bring to the game.”

Multiple sources familiar with the still-ongoing talks described the back-and-forth between PRO and the PSRA over the last month. In December, those sources said, PRO offered an overall 3% pay increase to its referees, while the PSRA had demanded an increase of up to 90%, said once source, with the largest of the increases reserved for its lowest-paid officials, like assistant referees and fourth officials. Earlier this week, PRO increased its offer “marginally,” said one source, offering an overall raise of 4-5%, according to another source briefed on the talks.


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If the referees voted to strike, or if PRO locked them out, MLS would be forced to use replacement referees in preseason and potentially when its regular season kicks off on February 21. The crisis would be averted, obviously, if the two sides reached a permanent agreement or even arrived at a temporary extension of the current CBA, something similar to what MLS and the MLS Players Association did during negotiations for the league’s most recent labor agreement with its players.

Though PRO and PSRA deal with professional referees in multiple leagues across U.S. soccer, the pay range in MLS can be instructive on how the scale can vary widely based on experience and position. According to the previous CBA, a copy of which was obtained by The Athletic, so-called “probationary” center referees — refs with less than two years of service — make a base salary of $50,647.90 for their work in MLS, which is supplemented by a match fee of $1,350.61 per regular season match they call. More experienced referees make anywhere from $95,000-$108,000 per year based on the number of matches they’ve called in addition to that same per-match fee.

Assistant referees also receive that same $1350.61 per match but their base pay is far less, falling between $16,038-$21,384 depending on experience. A sticking point in the way assistant referees are currently paid under the current CBA, though, is that they do not receive a match fee until the 10th regular season match they’ve called in a season.

The per-game rates for all officials slide upwards during the playoffs and for the All-Star game. For his work in this year’s MLS Cup, for example, center referee Armando Villarreal made $6,916.57, around five times higher than the amount he’d get during a regular season match.

Video Assistant Referees and Assistant VARs have their own pay range, which is even smaller than the rest of the crew.


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The previous CBA also outlines a handful of other benefits for MLS officials — standard offerings like retirement and health insurance, along with reimbursements for travel, cell phone use, a gym membership and other perks.

This is not the first time PRO and the PSRA have entered a labor dispute. In 2014, after negotiations between PRO and the PSRA soured — with both sides filing complaints against each other with the National Labor Relations Board — PRO locked the referees out, instead choosing to start the season with a collection of former MLS refs and a handful of other FIFA-certified refs. That lockout lasted three weeks, at which point the two sides agreed on a new, five-year-long CBA, the first-ever between PRO and its referees.

Things also turned sour in 2019, when the two sides met to hash out the current CBA, with the PSRA again filing an unfair practices complaint with the NLRB and accusing PRO of delaying negotiations for months as the CBA deadline approached. The PSRA eventually voted to authorize a strike, though it never came to that, with the two sides eventually reaching an agreement in February of that year.

(Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Pablo Maurer and Tom Bogert

2024-01-05 21:23:29 , Galaxy – The Athletic

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