MLS set to start 2024 season with replacement officials during CBA dispute

The labor union that represents MLS officials has yet to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the league. (Photo by Melinda Meijer/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The 2024 MLS season kicks off Wednesday with Lionel Messi and Inter Miami hosting Real Salt Lake, and it’s likely that replacement officials will be working the game.

As of Saturday morning, the league is preparing for that situation after a proposed new collective bargaining agreement was rejected by the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA), the labor union that represents MLS, NWSL and USL officials.

According to the PSRA, of the 97.8% of eligible members who voted, 95.8% voted “no” to ratify a Feb. 14 proposed tentative agreement.

Due to this, the Professional Referees Organization (PRO), the referees’ employer, is set to lock out MLS officials beginning at 12:01 a.m. ET Feb. 18.

From PRO:

The proposed new five-year CBA would have provided significantly improved pay and benefits for all officials, particularly assistant referees and video match officials. The key terms included:

• Overall increases in guaranteed pay in the agreement’s first year: 10-33% for referees, 75-104% for assistant referees, and 15-100% for video match officials, plus increased match fees for regular-season games and playoffs.
• An increase of seven percent in 2027 for all salaries/retainers and match fees – the highest mid-contract raise ever offered – with three percent increases in all other years.
• First/business class air travel for the playoffs and MLS Cup throughout the deal, and for Decision Day in 2027 and 2028.
• Additional benefits include enhanced injury continuance for referees and assistant referees, physical therapy reimbursement for referees and assistant referees in PRO’s sports performance program, employer contributions for assistant referees and video match officials for reimbursable health care costs, and increased severance for referees and assistant referees.

From PSRA:

PSRA executive leadership believes membership‘s rejection was a result of PRO‘s economic package falling short of expectations, along with a lack of quality of life improvements, which the members needed to improve their working lives. Unfortunately, PRO negotiators failed to heed PSRA’s warnings at the table that the tentative agreement would fall short of membership expectations and face an uphill ratification process. PSRA members have also experienced additional frustration during the bargaining process due to unfair labor practices the union has alleged on the part of PRO managers, creating what PSRA refers to as an unfair playing field in terms of reaching a contract that fairly rewards the Officials for their hard work and dedication to the game of soccer.

MLS Executive Vice President of Sporting Product and Competition Nelson Rodríguez released a statement Saturday, which included, “PRO has informed us of its contingency plan for the upcoming MLS season, which includes utilizing experienced professional match referees supported by veteran VAR officials. We are confident in the comprehensive plan they have put in place.”

As reported by The Athletic in January, PSRA members unanimously voted to strike and also filed an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that PRO was communicating with PSRA members and bypassing union leadership.

According to ESPN, PSRA filed a second unfair labor practice charge against PRO. The charge alleges that Mark Geiger, PRO’s general manager, sent a letter to union members stating that a lockout would happen if the tentative agreement was shot down and the existing proposal would be withdrawn and inferior terms would be agreed to.

The last PRO lockout occurred during CBA negotiations in 2014. After two weeks of talks, the sides came to an agreement.

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