When mediator George Cohen sits down with representatives of Major League Soccer (MLS) and the players union this week, he will need to conduct at least three distinct negotiations. He will, for sure, moderate a discussion between MLS and the players on sticking points pertaining to the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), including guaranteed contracts and free agency. But, of equal importance, he will need to convince each side to temper its own unrealistic expectations blocking the path to a deal.
For the league, this means understanding that the players will not agree to play this season under the terms of the current CBA, as the league has indicated it is ready to do. On the union side, Mr. Cohen will need to convince the players that striking is not the only alternative at this point, notwithstanding the players’ apparent willingness to strike unless their demands are met. Convincing the players will be the hard part.
In any labor negotiation, the union will not achieve results unless it can demonstrate leverage. This usually requires the union to signal that its constituents are prepared to go on strike — even if, in reality, they are not. This is not easy to do. It requires the union to convince its members that management’s offer is grossly unfair and one-sided. Even though a strike will be painful to endure, the union representative says, it is the only way to force the employer to make needed changes. As the deadline to reach a deal approaches, the union may even ask its members to make their solidarity publicly known. This rallies the troops and increases leverage on the employer but it also solidifies the perception within the union that a strike is the only alternative if the union’s demands are not met. In short, the trouble with tough talk during a negotiation is that over time one tends to believe his own bluff.
This seems to be what is going on with the MLS players’ current threats to strike. The players cannot relish a work stoppage but have worked hard to make it known that they will strike if necessary. Their efforts have reportedly yielded an offer to increase the cap for player salaries, as well as guarantees for some contracts, among other concessions. But the league has remained firmly opposed to free agency, indicating that it will not agree to any changes that may compromise the league’s long terms economic success — i.e., MLS is unwilling to jeopardize its single entity designation.
At first, the players seemingly understood that free agency was off the table. As late as February 22, Jimmy Conrad was quoted to say, “We feel like we’ve made a huge effort to be reasonable, to propose things that are within the confines of the single-entity structure.” Yet, as the CBA deadline passed without a deal on free agency, the union has only turned up its threats to strike. The feeling now seems to be that nothing short of free agency will avoid a work stoppage. As is often the case in negotiation, the union seems to have painted itself into a corner where nothing short of a complete win will suffice.
Mediation is the perfect vehicle to reset the players’ skewed expectations. Mediator Cohen will be able to remind the union and its players that strike rhetoric was always intended as a means to an end, not the end itself. He can put into perspective that striking is not in the players’ best interests (which is why they did not want to do so from the outset) and remind the union that the investors in MLS are far better positioned to wait out a prolonged work stoppage. He can list all of the tangible concessions that the league has made and he can correctly credit these gains to the leverage that threatening to strike has achieved. Most importantly, unlike the union’s leadership, the mediator is not saddled with repeated declarations that a strike may be “necessary” to achieve the players’ goals.
Mr. Cohen will surely need to get some additional concessions from the league during the mediation process. But if he devotes the bulk of his energy to managing the union’s now unrealistic expectations, he should be able to broker a deal this week even if the league does not ultimately concede the free agency issue.