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On MLS, unions, and the threat of a strike: It's complicated

A strike might be looming, but can it be pulled off successfully nowadays?

Strikes still happen, but the historical moment is different.
Strikes still happen, but the historical moment is different.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

I've refrained from writing about the current Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations between MLS and the MLS Players Union this offseason for a few reasons. For one thing, there's a lot of other people writing about it, and I haven't felt like just being another person reporting the blow-by-blow, or being yet another voice atop a heaping pile of them, just because.

Still, that doesn't mean I'm not interested in what's happening -- I certainly am. And it doesn't mean I don't have opinions, because I definitely do.

But on a personal level, as well as a societal level, it's complicated. Big issues tend to be, of course, and even more when one is discussing topics that are highly political in nature. But seriously, it's complicated.

On a basic level, I support the efforts of players. Should they get paid more? Yes. Would it be more fair to them as free laborers to have some kind of expanded power to move to the team of their choosing in MLS? Yes again.

When we're not in CBA season, I'd venture a guess that the vast majority of fans of MLS support these two points, too. Compared to other North American pro sports, and compared to the bigger soccer leagues around the world that MLS is aiming to join, the players are paid a paltry sum by and large, with the exception of a handful of stars. We get to the point where we freely debate whether a player making, say, $60,000 is "good value" when many Americans make significantly more than that in other, less glamorous jobs.

I grew up in a household that was pro-union, and in a town and region, Metro Detroit, that was solidly pro-union. My parents in the past belonged to labor unions. But times have even changed considerably since the 1980s, to say nothing of the peak of labor membership in the U.S., which came all the way back in the 1950s.

Business has fought back against labor unions (a campaign that never really abated, frankly, since the establishment of unions in the 1800s) and gained significant momentum in recent decades. Sectors, like manufacturing, that were bastions of labor unions have moved, often out of the country, and taken any union protections for workers with them. Newer companies are far more sophisticated at resisting unions, and the government is less likely to support establishment of unions and unfair labor practice complaints than in previous decades.

That's how we get to a point where many MLS fans are thoroughly confused about the distinction between a lockout (where owners close their doors to workers) and a strike (where workers refuse to work) -- most of them have had little to no interaction with unions in their working lives.

Professional soccer players aren't service workers, at least in the sense we think of the term, and they aren't in manufacturing, and so unions serve a slightly different purpose. One of the areas that unions have made some inroads in recent decades is among highly educated workers in fields previously ignored, but it's still not been easy. The MLS Players Union is part of a tradition of pro athlete unions in North America, one that stretches back to the heyday of unions, but it also represents a connection to the newer unions of highly educated workers. After all, a fair number of MLS players have college degrees.

I belonged to one of these newer-style unions for a time, and worked for a separate union unit, for a short time several years back. When I say the relationship of Americans (and Canadians) and unions is complicated, I mean it on a micro level as well as macro. For as much as anti-union rhetoric has poisoned the well for those who may support what unions try to do, there are experiences like mine.

While working for a big union I would rather not name, that violated workers' rights more than any other job I've ever had, period, where conditions were so bad, despite our political support of workers' rights through labor unions, that my co-workers and I actually talked about the possibility of forming a separate labor union, of labor union employees, to try and fight for better conditions for ourselves, all while we're trying to bring other workers into the union's cause! It was absurd, and impossible, and yet we pondered it nonetheless.

I left that job after a few months, when I got a better offer, and my supervisor looked at me with envious eyes and told me to take it, do not hesitate, do it now! So I did. And ever since, I wonder about the place of unions, those that are well-run and aren't alike, and where discussions of workers' rights, not to mention action, are headed in the coming decades.

All of this is to say that now we're at the precipice of a strike by MLS players, we're going to see the rubber hit the road. I've never gone on strike before from a job, and while I'd like to say that I definitely would go on strike for the right cause, the unity between co-workers, support from the general public, and even a measure of sympathy at times from management is coming apart more and more all the time. I don't think really anyone wants to actually see a strike -- if the sides can come to an agreement before that's necessary, then crisis averted.

If we get to the point where a strike will happen, which would be pretty soon, there will be divisions among players along political lines, along financial lines, along nationality lines, and probably also along age, too. Will the MLSPU be able to withstand these divisions to keep all of the players in line? Will players see unity as a bigger cause than pissing off their coaches and front office? Will fans support a strike, especially one that overlaps with actual games, or will they quickly grow resentful?

I don't have any simple answers, unfortunately. I have no inside info of the MLS Players Union, which may be a model organization run fairly for all, and just because I had a bad experience inside a union once doesn't mean they're all bad, of course. I still hope the players can get what they want without having to strike, and I still support the players' demands. But I wonder if any union can be truly successful in striking nowadays, even if their cause is fair. I wonder if history points to something more than an uphill battle, and a moment in time that says that workers, even if they happen to be professional athletes, just don't have as much power as they want to (or ought to) have.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!