Harry Shipp is now a relative veteran when it comes to negotiating Collective Bargaining Agreements for his fellow MLS players. He was there in 2015 when the players authorized a strike before ultimately agreeing to a deal with owners. He was there throughout the year-long negotiations that ultimately led to a deal just a few months ago that both sides seemed very pleased with. He was there again last week when players almost universally responded to owners’ “take-it-or-leave-it” offer by refusing to show up to training for three straight days.
With the dust now settled and official games on the schedule, Shipp shares some of the negative feelings his fellow players have voiced, but mostly feels pride. When push came to shove, players refused to back down and showed a level of solidarity they never had before.
“I think players — both on the Sounders and across the league, domestic and international — were more engaged in this process than I’d ever seen in seven years of dealing with CBA negotiations,” Shipp told Sounder at Heart. “Players actually understand the depth and breadth of the issues now that they didn’t before.”
As Shipp alluded to, organizing the MLS player pool has always been a significant challenge. Not only is the wage gap in MLS unlike virtually any other league — millionaires regularly share the field with players making five figures — it also has players from all over the world who might only be here for a year or two. Convincing players like that to feel any sort of investment in the future of the league is particularly challenging.
Further complicating these negotiations was the league’s desire to return with a tournament that was outside the scope of the previous CBA.
When the plan was first presented, players had concerns on several levels. One was on the length as plans called for teams to be sequestered way from families at the Walt Disney World resort for as long as 10 weeks. There was also considerable concerns about safety protocols and how the league planned to handle interactions between quarantined players and hotel staff who would be going home every night. Finally, players were also worried that after a such a long break that the quality of play would potentially harm the league’s perception.
Although players weren’t completely satisfied with the answers they got on all fronts, they did succeed in getting the length of their forced stay in Florida cut nearly in half and seem reasonably satisfied with the safety procedures that have been put in place.
As eager as players seem to be in getting back on the field for competitive matches, there’s still no denying that some hard feelings are lingering. Negotiations first got off to a rocky start when MLS floated the idea of players taking a 50% pay cut — something Shipp said would have been universally rejected if it had ever gotten to that point — and then closed with owners issuing a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum that came with an overt threat of a lockout. Further complicating matters was a force majeure clause that would have made it almost entirely within the league’s control to void the CBA.
“I think we had a lot of questions and they went dark a little bit on terms of getting answers back to us,” Shipp said. “Then all of a sudden, it’s like they’re making this threat saying, ‘Hey, you have 24 hours to decide not only this year’s pay negotiations the next five years but also make a final decision on Orlando.’”
Rather than accept those terms, players dug in a way they hadn’t before. Shipp said he had been in almost constant contact with the entire team and that there was wide agreement that players should sit out from what was still considered voluntary workouts despite knowing that could lead to a lockout that might last until next season. Along with widespread condemnation from the media, that was enough for owners to extend their deadline and to rework the force majeure clause in a way that was industry standard.
What remains unknown is how much of an effect all of this will have on the next negotiations.
“I would say the process stuff for what they did this time around — especially how like those last three or four days were handled — for me it was complete BS. I think they know that, at least I hope they do. And it’s something that’s not going to go away in the next week or month.”