While MLS players were engaged in labor talks the past few months, a movement to unionize the United Soccer League, a blossoming third-division circuit with ties to numerous MLS clubs, got underway.
Players in the 24-team league have been receiving a memorandum that says, “As the USL enters a new era, we believe that the players should have a voice. And, from talking to many of you, we understand that there’s a desire to improve the standard of employment in the league.
“For the moment, our main goal is simply to organize and establish a body that will represent the voice of the players. We have not established specific bargaining priorities, because ultimately the players will determine those priorities. Having said that, we advocate a reasonable approach to bargaining, which will not disrupt the development of the league.”
The effort is unrelated to the MLS players’ union, and potential collective bargaining talks would not affect the 2015 USL season, which begins this month.
It comes at a time of rapid growth in the USL, which added 13 new clubs this season and plans to apply to the U.S. Soccer Federation for second-division sanctioning. The league hopes to expand to 40 teams and reach profitability by the end of the decade.
Eight USL teams are owned and operated by MLS organizations, while 12 others are affiliated with the first-tier league. Many USL teams serve small- and medium-sized markets and, through MLS connections, provide opportunities for young players.
The Tampa-based USL operates separately from MLS, but the leagues entered an agreement two years ago to work together on player development and other initiatives. By extension, individual MLS organizations that run USL teams would probably have a role in labor talks.
USL spokesman Jay Preble said the league is aware of the union initiative and did not want to comment at this time.
MLS players unionized in 2003. Last Wednesday, 48 hours before the regular season opener, they struck a deal in principle with owners on a five-year pact, the third CBA in league history. MLS has never had a work stoppage.
The second-division North American Soccer League does not have a union.
“We’re not looking to rock the boat,” said Philipakos, author of “On Level Terms: 10 Legal Battles that Tested and Shaped Soccer in the Modern Era.” “We’re looking to form a partnership with the USL and its owners that will further the development of the league. In the short term, that should include working together to establish some basic employment standards.”
Most players have been receptive to the creation of a union, Philipakos said.
Paolo DelPiccolo, a midfielder for the expansion Charlotte Independence, and a second player, who did not want to be identified, are helping to spearhead the effort.
“Even if there are a lot of players in this league who have their sights set on moving on to MLS at some point,” DelPiccolo said, “there’s an understanding that what we’re doing could make a big difference in the lives of not just today’s players but everyone that’s going to follow.”
Unlike MLS, in which the players’ union posts contract figures twice per year, USL salaries are not circulated. Most players are paid during the spring-to-fall season only. There is no minimum salary. An above-average player is estimated to earn $2,000 a month, with some making $3,000 and more.
The prospective union group has been distributing authorization cards to players. If a majority shows support, Philipakos will ask the league for formal recognition. Should the USL decline, he said the group would petition the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a players’ vote.
A majority outcome would require union certification and lead to bargaining talks. Philipakos said he then would aim to begin negotiations ahead of the 2016 season.