By Kyle McCarthy
Most collective bargaining negotiations follow the path of a typical bar fight. Each side spouts off a few ridiculous boasts to incite the other party, lands a couple of glancing blows and walks away generally in tact with a few scratches to prove the tussle actually happened.
Aside from the public sniping that grabbed headlines in the latter stages of 2009 and subsided over the past few weeks as both sides substituted negotiating stances for incendiary proclamations, the ongoing CBA talks between MLS and the MLS Players Union have followed a kinder, gentler path best represented by a few notable displays of togetherness.
The most impressive instances of unity involve the parties on either side of the table. The leaders chosen by MLS and the Union represent a diverse set of interests that make finding common ground difficult even among allies, yet have maintained the type of internal solidarity required for effective negotiation.
MLS now possesses a diverse investor group encompassing the spectrum from the spend-as-much-as-we-can-to-win-games new guard to the firm backers of the restrictive single-entity structure that guided the league through the economic difficulties at the turn of the century. The Union faces perhaps a more difficult task of trying to build a consensus with rookies, veterans, domestic and foreign players all enjoying varying amounts of contractual protections and compensation packages.
Despite these inherent differences within the ranks, neither group has shown much in the way of public (or even private) dissension at this point. Locked in the type of negotiations that often fractures alliances, both sides can point to the current coherence as a laudable achievement, particularly for a Union that struggled to remain cohesive while negotiating the now-expired CBA implemented in December 2004.
The unity on either side of the table extends to the common goal shared by both parties: the desire to reach an accord prior to the start of the season without a work stoppage. This shared belief led to the 12-day reprieve that keeps both sides negotiating while players and teams prepare for the upcoming season without a CBA in place. While the extension isn't an agreement, it does show that both sides have made enough headway to narrow the disagreements to a couple of key areas and enter the final phase of the talks.
Resolving the remaining fundamental issues will test the air of collegiality and stress the resolve and the cohesiveness on both sides. Although the two parties have made significant progress toward a new agreement, the remaining hurdles pose a particularly difficult challenge because the differences are primarily philosophical, not financial, in nature. To put an even finer point on it, the unity that has facilitated the process to this point could make hashing out these concerns an excruciating ordeal.
MLS wants to maintain the fundamentals of the single-entity structure system in any new agreement. By centralizing player acquisition at the league level, MLS deflates salaries and all but eliminates the competition between its teams that would see compensation rise across the board. Throw in a few restrictive contractual measures – league-held options at the end of every year in most cases, semi-guaranteed contracts voidable without compensation for the first six months of the year and team-controlled rights after contract expiry if a player chooses to remain in MLS – and the perfect storm of cost control appears.
The Union believes the current practices violate FIFA regulations – a murky area explored in depth in this space back in November and ultimately deemed irrelevant by FIFA's unwillingness to interject itself into the negotiations – and unnecessarily hinder player movement. Liberalizing the structure by eliminating at least a few of the most restrictive player controls would represent a victory as the Union seeks to obtain more contractual rights for its players. The alterations may not mean free agency in its truest sense or fully guaranteed deals for all of its players, but the Union stance certainly includes modifying the rights system currently in place for out-of-contract players and obtaining greater access to contractual guarantees and freedom of movement.
Sorting out those vast differences will almost certainly require one side to concede more intellectual ground than its current approach suggests. The questions revolve around which side will fold and what will it take to get them to compromise.
The latter question poses the greatest threat. Both sides have displayed a willingness to give some ground – MLS knows it must raise salaries on the bottom end of the pay scale to fend off embarrassing public relations concerns and improve the quality of play, while the Union understands dismantling or substantially altering the single-entity structure isn't even in the same room as the negotiating table – but the solidarity on both sides portends trouble ahead if the spirit of compromise wavers as the questions turn increasingly more difficult. While the recent deadline extension should make the prospects of a deal over the next 12 days more likely than not and both sides remain averse to a lockout or strike, it could take a brief work stoppage to bridge those philosophical divides unless either party surprisingly cracks or crumbles.
Any work stoppage would seemingly favor MLS and the status quo for financial reasons. A pre-season work stoppage would halt player salaries without harming ticket revenues, while the Union rank and file simply can't afford a lengthy stoppage any more than a typical office worker or middle manager can withstand a period of unemployment. For more than a few players, there are also concerns about maintaining match fitness to remain in contention for the World Cup.
MLS certainly harbors concerns of its own – eliminating game-related revenues, limiting the splash of Red Bull Arena and stunting the momentum in Philadelphia – over a lengthy work stoppage, but its investors, for the most part, are better suited to withstand the losses and could recoup that money by assuming a hard line to maintain the current structure and restrict costs.
Those concerns, at least for now, remain merely hypothetical. But if the resoluteness continues on both sides and the productiveness stalls because of those differences, the unity that has marked the process so far will hasten the arrival of the scuffle everyone expected all along.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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