MLS labor talks: another view
As we await word on the status of MLS's labor talks, reader feedback continues to fill the comments section and my e-mail basket. This morning's kickaround included, in long form, the views of an Insider loyalist disappointed in the players' stance in the negotiations. From another reader, Ed, who "swears on a stack of flapjacks" that he has no ties to the union or any players, comes this:
I appreciate Jeremy's effort in putting his thoughts in long-form, but I do find it unconvincing. When players refer to rights, they are talking about the "right" to contract with whom they want and to move about the country as they please. That is a right. It's protected in the Privileges and Immunities clause of the Constitution. It's also a right that is recognized in the European Union and has been affirmed by the European Court of Justice as applying even to athletes in the Bosman case.
The analogy to businesses where folks are transferred about the country is a false one. They are not employed by monopolies -- there are going to be other employers in the industry. For some players, it might be about location, for others it might be about playing time, for others (Kevin Hartman, etc.) it's about being able to get a free- or even a fair-market wage. If one employer won't provide that, why is it deemed a "benefit" to be able to find another employer who would?
Yes, not everything players are asking for can be defined as a right, but it's wrong to claim that none of their demands are, or should be, rights.
As for the owners' supposed "concessions" -- none of us know what they are. They claimed the league has made proposals that have moved the league's position in the direction of the players' demands on contract guarantees and the ability to move within the league. We don't know what those proposals were, so we don't know if they're real concessions. The league claims it has proposed some change in team control of players' rights, though the owners are insisting they won't allow free agency. I'm not sure what change would be a real one, if it doesn't give the players some level of being able to negotiate with other teams (free agency). Without any detail, I can't evaluate the sincerity of the proposal.
The players addressed the MLS proposal because that's the only one the league offered public details on -- it's the one the league offered as evidence of its bonafides. So, the players chose to react the way I and others did -- to point out the league's number was a sham.
The league wanted the public to think they're giving players $60 million more -- salary increases. The proposal is a sham because most of that money actually reflects the addition of expansion teams. The new teams aren't being added to placate the players -- they're being done to expand market access for the league and to claim $40 million franchise fees from the new team owners.
Expansion is completely separate from the negotiations. We shouldn't be surprised the players were incensed when the league used its own expansion decisions as part of a cynical public relations ploy to turn fans against the union. The league made that ploy even more galling because they hid the fact that the numbers were primarily a function of expansion.
People in the general public fall for that stuff in every labor situation. It's why corporations have managed to turn most people in this country against unions, even including workers who seem blind to the fact this works to their detriment. So, the players union reps reacted by pulling back the curtain and screaming the "Emperor has no clothes" (if you pardon the mixed metaphor).
To point out the players are complaining about the size of the wage increase shows a fundamental misunderstanding. Yes, the players noted that the league's proposal would enshrine a smaller increase in salaries than what the league was doing on its own under the last CBA. The salary cap was not part of the last CBA, so this actually suggests the owners are trying to use the new CBA to cap their own spending -- to slow salary growth.
Moreover, because of the nature of the business, overall payroll increases do not necessarily translate into salary increases for anyone. It may just reflect the league will be doling out more high-end contracts to recruit foreigners who aren't even in the union now. Nothing in the league's proposal suggested agreement to raise minimum salaries, or to raise salaries across the board.
Furthermore, the fact that some players are returning to MLS after turns in European leagues proves nothing. I'm willing to bet that almost every one of those players were able to negotiate better deals from MLS the second time around, after establishing themselves in Europe. Troy Perkins is definitely getting a whole lot more money than he got from DCU before. Perkins' situation points out the difficulties for Americans moving to such foreign cultures with languages that they may never have even heard spoken before. That situation is in stark contrast to Europeans coming here, when they have been learning English since they were kids.
Reasonable people can surely differ about how much ownership and management are entitled to claim for their own profits and how much those doing the real labor should be entitled to get. Certainly, in this country we've tilted wildly in favor of management in recent decades, leading to unprecedented concentration of wealth and stagnant wages for something like 90 percent of the work force. What we cannot -- or should not -- do is pretend that's not what is happening. We need to acknowledge it or we cannot even discuss whether it should be happening.
No one wants the league to fail. I don't know if the players are the majority of the workforce in MLS, but they would have the most to lose if the league fails. The other jobs can be found in similar industries. If the league goes under, the career the players have spent their entire youth and adult life working towards would be pulled out from under their feet. The skills they've developed will be wasted. That's not what the players are trying to achieve.
The players are trying to gain a measure of protection for their yearly wage after committing to spend another year in MLS. Why is it even reasonable for the players to ask for that? Because FIFA rules prevent them from gaining substitute employment except during two very narrow transfer windows. Also, any comparable substitute employment would be in another country, and some of those countries -- some of the most desirable options -- are not real options for most American players due to visa rules.
And, they are seeking the ability -- normally understood as a right (courts have found this to be a right for other professional athletes in this country) -- to be able to shop their services once a contract has expired. The league has its reasons for trying to prohibit its own clubs from bidding for the players' services. I do not agree with them. I don't even agree that it's in their own interest -- but I think that's not decisive.
What should be decisive is that players like Hartman should not be forced to accept what the Wizards are willing or able to pay based on their own salary cap decision if some other team has more cap room and is willing to pay Hartman more. That's what we understand as a right.
As a fan, I respect the unique abilities the players have. As someone who has suffered serious injuries in friendlier competition, I also appreciate the physical risk they're facing. I don't want to see a work stoppage, but I agree with the players that it's time the league made a more tangible show of respect for their investment in the league's success.
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