(PSRA) (PSRA)
(PRO) (PRO)

With the MLS season less than a month away, representatives for the referees’ union and the organization that oversees officiating will meet again Wednesday in Washington in an effort to reach their first collective bargaining agreement.

“I am not as optimistic as I would like to be,” said Peter Walton, general manager of the Professional Referee Organization, which manages the officiating program on behalf of MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation. “We have come to a number of tentative agreements in many areas. We are some distance apart on our economics, but I don’t think the slowness will impact the season.”

The sides have met more than 20 times since last summer and continue to disagree on financial terms.

“We are still hopeful to reach an agreement before the regular season begins,” said Steve Taylor, lead negotiator for the Professional Soccer Referees Association. “We’ve made progress on non-economic issues and we’ve done good work together, but we’re now down to economic issues.”

If the sides fail to reach terms by MLS’s first weekend March 8-9, Taylor said, “we are considering several different options how to proceed.”

Last year, PRO’s budget for salaries and match fees was an estimated $2.1 million. PRO employs 20 full- and part-time match officials and an additional 56 who are compensated on a per-game basis. These 76 officials comprise the entire pool of people eligible to work matches as referees, assistant referees and fourth officials in MLS.

MLS is PRO’s primary financial backer, with the USSF contributing a smaller share.

Neither side was willing to go into detail about their respective proposals. Taylor said time demands on referees have increased because of, for instance, regular training camps. “As they should,” he said, “but there is a need to compensate for it.” He also said that, because the union did not negotiate the previous contract, the baseline is unfairly low.

“What is on the table is a fair deal,” Walton said, adding that “we stand above,” compared to referee compensation globally.

Wednesday’s talks come a week after the PSRA filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. It claims PRO failed to respond to several information requests; engaged in “regressive bargaining by withdrawing a number of tentative agreements without good cause;” failed to “bargain in good faith;” and was not available for meetings.

Walton said he refutes the PSRA’s claims.

One of the options available to the PSRA is an unfair labor practice strike. In that event, PRO would be forced to cover MLS games using less-experienced officials who primarily work in the lower divisions. However, Taylor pointed out his membership roster is much deeper than the 76 officials primarily working MLS games. He recalled a dispute several years ago involving Interliga, a U.S.-based tournament featuring Latin American clubs. During that dispute, the USSF attempted to cover games with less-experienced officials. PSRA members were united, however, and a majority declined assignments.

“We are so much more organized now than we were then,” Taylor said. “We hope it doesn’t come to that, but we are unified and ready to take a stand in order to accomplish the goal of creating a fair set of working conditions, which includes compensation, for our members.”

The PSRA is planning to file a second charge for perceived threats made to members who participate in union activities.

Taylor, 46, is a former George Washington University player who was an assistant referee in MLS from 1996 to 2012 and is vice president of the PSRA. Walton, 54, was a longtime referee in England before his appointment as head of PRO upon its formation in March 2012.

The referees are not the only ones seeking a labor deal. The collective bargaining agreement between MLS and the players’ union expires after the 2014 season. Talks are expected to continue throughout the campaign in an effort to avoid a work stoppage next year. In 2010, the sides reached a pact five days before the season was scheduled to start.