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MLS referees locked out amid labor impasse; replacement officials called in

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Major League Soccer will utilize replacement referees after the officiating union and management failed to settle a labor dispute on the eve of the season openers.

The Pro Referee Organization, which administers officiating programs in the United States and Canada, announced Friday that it has locked out the referees until a collective bargaining agreement is reached with the Professional Soccer Referees Association. The sides have been engaged in negotiations for several months in hopes of reaching their first labor deal.

PRO said it has “recruited a highly qualified pool of replacement officials, all of whom have officiated at the professional level” to work MLS matches. The season begins this weekend with eight matches.

The pool includes, PRO said, certified officials who have moved here from overseas, former MLS refs, and officials who have worked in other U.S. leagues. In preparation for a possible lockout or strike, PRO conducted a training camp for the replacements in Texas last week.

“PRO’s decision to lock out the referees and use scab replacements presents a serious health and safety issue for our members,” MLS players’ union executive director Bob Foose said. “We will continue to monitor this situation closely, as it is our sincere hope that cooler heads will prevail, the parties will reach an agreement and PSRA officials will be back on the field as soon as possible.”

The head referees this weekend include Alan Kelly, a FIFA referee originally from Ireland; Ioannis Stavridis (Greece); former MLS officials Abbey Okulaja and Ramon Hernandez; a second-division NASL ref; a former MLS fourth official; and two refs from Puerto Rico.

“We have high confidence in the qualifications of our replacement officials and can ensure our fans, clubs and players that all games will be officiated at a professional standard that protects the integrity of our matches and the safety of our players,” PRO General Manager Peter Walton said.

In a written statement, PSRA lead negotiator Steve Taylor said: “I am deeply saddened by PRO and Major League Soccer’s decision to lock out its officials in advance of the beginning of what could be a historic MLS season. PSRA has worked tirelessly to reach an agreement, however we have been met with resistance since the beginning being forced to seek relief from the National Labor Relations Board on charges of bad faith bargaining and management threats against our officials. Those charges remain pending. We were hopeful to continue negotiations and even were seeking the assistance of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). It would appear, unfortunately, the league has decided to employ scorched earth tactics instead.”

PRO is an independent company founded 18 months ago and financed by MLS and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. Soccer Federation.

The sides were $440,000 apart on a total compensation package that would have averted a work stoppage, one source said. Another with knowledge of the negotiations said the divide is more than $1 million.

“We have made a substantial proposal to the Professional Soccer Referees Association and believe it is very fair and reasonable,” Walton said. “Our proposal represents a significant increase above current compensation for referees and places them above the average for officials around the world.  We are disappointed it has been rejected.”

Taylor said PRO offered a new proposal this week — “They showed some movement for the first time” — but not enough to resolve their issues.

The PSRA also rejected a no-strike, no-lockout proposal put forth by both PRO and the FMCS. “Since they will not give us a guarantee they will not go on strike immediately prior to our matches,” Walton said, “we are left in a position where we must use replacement officials to ensure that the MLS games are played as scheduled this weekend.”

Walton and Taylor planned to speak later Friday in hopes of scheduling new talks soon.

Meantime, the union is awaiting a ruling from the NLRB over a complaint that a PRO representative “threatened multiple members with discipline and additional unlawful threats of reprisals if those members continued to support the union.”