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Cooler heads prevailing in CBA dispute

They both blinked.

After Thursday's non-announcements that the owners are willing to let the season begin under the old CBA and the players aren't willing to walk off the job, I think we can safely say that both sides realize a work stoppage is not in either sides' best interests. 

Both are playing it right from a negotiating standpoint. The owners know they have nothing to lose by allowing the status quo to continue. The players realize that playing under the old CBA while retaining the right to strike by not officially extending it can only help their leverage. 

If I was going to make a wager, I'd bet heavily on the season starting whether or not a deal is struck. Although I'd be willing to place a much smaller wager on it, I think the smart money still goes on the season being finished as well.

I make this prediction based on my personal experience as the chair of a bargaining unit during a contract negotiation and a recent conversation I had with a union organizer.

If we were talking about professional baseball, football, hockey or basketball players where even the worst-paid guys make hundreds of thousands of dollars, this would be a little different. Those players can afford to go on strike, and just as importantly feel as though they can't afford NOT to go on strike. 

In a league where about a third of the players make less than $50,000 annually and have few options to replace that lost income, I think MLS players have a lot more in common with union workers in my situation than they do with other professional athletes. 

Based on my personal experiences, I can tell you that people in these situations are much more worried about working and getting paid than they are about making some grand statements. If only the highest paid players or those with the strongest convictions got to vote on whether to strike or not, maybe the union would have already announced its players' intentions to walk off the pitch -- probably the day before the season starts. 

As it stands now, MLS players would be much better off playing under the current agreement and waiting to renegotiate after a season in which the league has likely set attendance records and is getting ready to welcome two more franchises into the fold.

For the sake of comparison, let's look at the last few work stoppages in professional sports.

  • 2004-05 NHL Lockout: Owners claimed to be losing money, and the day after the CBA ran out, they chose to lock out the players. The entire season was lost. Players ended up agreeing to a salary cap (which did not exist before) that was tied to league revenue and in many cases took pay cuts.
  • 1998-1999 NBA Lockout: Owners claimed to be losing money, reopened the CBA in March 1998 and locked out the players in July. About half the season was lost. Players ended up agreeing to a much more strict salary scale, but did get a raise on minimums.
  • 1994-95 Major League Baseball Strike: Owners claimed to be losing money, wanted to institute a salary cap, but continued negotiating for about seven months after the CBA expired. Serious talk of a strike picked up in July and on Aug. 12, 1994 the players walked off the job. The World Series was canceled. After urging from both Congress and President Clinton, the strike finally ended in April 1995. The owners agreed to increased revenue sharing and the players accepted what amounted to a luxury tax.
  • 1982 and 1987 NFL Players strikes: I list these two separate strikes together because they were linked in many ways. The first strike was over several issues, ranging from the ability for the union to see salary information to free agency and guaranteed contracts. About half the season was canceled and all players had to show for it was proof that many of them were underpaid. That led directly to the next strike in which players again sought a guaranteed share of revenues, free agency and guarantees. Only one week of games were actually canceled as owners filled rosters with a mix of replacements and picket-line crossing players. The strike was eventually called off after about a month without so much as a new collective bargaining agreement being signed. The owners' win was so decisive that the players eventually decertified the union. It wasn't until 1993, with a new union in place, that NFL players earned free agency after signing their first CBA in more than 10 years.

Players can surely look at the MLB strike and draw encouragement. They would be deluding themselves if they took too much, though. For one, don't expect President Obama to play a similar role in helping mediate the dispute.

The twin NFL strikes might be a better comparison. The first, like the MLS dispute, was against the backdrop of a recession. The union was comparably young -- its first CBA wasn't signed until 1968 -- and didn't have resources like a strike fund or health insurance. Owners had similar complaints -- losing money, low attendance, measly TV contracts -- as today's MLS and players were seeking some of the very same gains.  

Obviously, that ended in virtual disaster for the players -- lost paychecks and little to show for it -- and yet it was a relative success compared to the 1987 version.

Owners didn't want to lock players out then largely because there was no upside. Much is the same now, as I can't think of a good reason for owners to keep players away even if a strike seems to constantly loom on the horizon.

Luckily for fans, I think both sides are taking a rational approach here. It might be uncomfortable and maybe even a little unseemly, but it's hard for me to see it ending in disaster, either.

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