US Soccer History

Looking back at the 1979 NASL players strike

Ahead of the expiration on Jan. 31 of the current collective bargaining agreement between MLS and the MLS Players Union, PSP contributor and labor lawyer Steve Holroyd began our look at the issues surrounding the negotiations for a new CBA with a primer on labor law and terminology

We continue with a look back at the strike by North American Soccer League players in 1979.

If you have questions about the MLS CBA negotiations, put them in the comment section of this week’s roundups or tweet them to PSP using the hashtag #MLSCBA2015. Labor lawyer, and PSP contributor, Steve Holroyd will answer them in an upcoming post.

Recent comments from MLS players in articles and on social media about their willingness to strike if a new CBA is not reached with the league before the start of the season on March 6 surely sent a chill through the MLS fanbase.

While NASL players went on strike 1979, their reason for doing was fundamentally different from the reasons why MLS players could vote to strike if a new CBA is accepted.

What were the issues that led to the NASL strike in 1979?

The reason NASL players went on strike in 1979 was simply because the NASL owners refused to recognize the North American Soccer League Players Association (NASLPA).

The owners continued to refuse to recognize the NASLPA even after being ordered to do so by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Arguing that financial disparities among the league’s clubs would make a league-wide labor agreement impossible, the owners wanted negotiations to be made on a club-by-club basis.

The NASLPA gambled that a strike would force the owners to recognize the players association more quickly than a protracted legal battle. After 252-113 vote by the players, the strike officially began on Friday, April 13, 1979. The next day the head of the NASLPA, Ed Garvey, told the Washington Post that the strike could be settled “as soon as management comes to the bargaining table. It won’t cost them a dime. There’s only one issue involved, recognition of the union.”

This is clearly not the case with the current CBA negotiations. To start, the MLSPU was founded in 2003 and signed its first CBA with MLS in 2004 (current negotiations are for the third CBA between the league and players). As comments from players such as Michael Bradley suggest, if a strike were to happen, it will likely be because of the players’ desire for free agency and higher salaries for the rank and file.

Money had nothing to do with the NASL strike?

Wage disparity was a reason why, in August 1977, 93 percent of NASL players voted in favor of forming a union but it wasn’t why the union went on strike. Garvey described at the time that raising minimum wage levels in the league as a long term goal and not as a reason for the strike.

When MLS players and fans talk about the issue of wages today, the issue is generally one of MLS players being poorly paid compared to players in other leagues around the world, not to mention compared to other North American professional sports leagues. For many foreign players in 1979, particularly those from Britain, playing in the NASL would have meant a rise in pay versus what they would have earned back home.

In 1979 the the wage disparity issue also wasn’t conceived of as soccer players compared to other professional athletes in the United States and Canada. Although higher wages were certainly desired, players generally recognized that both the sport and the league were growing and that it was unrealistic to expect wages on level with MLB or the NFL.

Rather, in 1979 wage disparity was primarily an issue of what American players were paid compared to foreign players in NASL.

At the time of the strike, domestic players made up 45 percent of the players in the league’s 24 teams, earning on average approximately $12,000 a year. Foreign players earned on average approximately $20,000 a year. In today’s value, that works out to about $36,000 a year for American players and $60,000 for foreign players. (An analysis at Business of Soccer of spending on domestic and foreign players in MLS makes clear that spending on foreign players is skewed by big salaried Designated Players.)

According to the most recent figures from the MLSPU, the average salary for a MLS player as of September, 2014 was $226,454. Because the average is skewed by the high salaries of a few players — the New York Times reported last October, “Nearly a third of the league’s total payroll of about $130 million goes to the seven best-paid players,” — so the median income of $92,000 is perhaps more representative. Unfortunately, I cannot find a median income figure for NASL players in 1979 to compare their wages with those of MLS players but it is true that most MLS players are comparatively better off than their NASL counterparts.

Nevertheless, a median income of $92,000 still means that half of the players in MLS make less than that. As recent comments from players have made clear, salary concerns are clearly a major issue with the ongoing CBA negotiations.

What happened during the strike?

The 1979 strike was an unmitigated disaster.

The league scheduled a full slate of games with teams taking whatever steps necessary to fill open roster slots. The three Canadian teams in the league — Edmonton Drillers, Toronto Blizzard and Vancouver Whitecaps — were prohibited from striking by Canadian law. At least six U.S. teams — Chicago Sting, Philadelphia Fury, New York Cosmos, San Jose Earthquakes, Tampa Bay Rowdies and Tulsa Roughnecks — fielded full strength teams of regulars. The remaining teams saw varying degrees of strike participation with as little as one Los Angeles Aztec player and as many as seventeen Portland Timbers players refusing to play. (See the excellent review of what happened over the strike at kenn.com.)

On Tuesday April 17, 1979, NASLPA leaders, as well as representatives from Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Washington Diplomats, and Rochester Lancers, met with Cosmos players to try to convince them to honor the strike. After all, the Cosmos were the league’s showcase club.

The Cosmos players remained unconvinced.

Prior to the strike Garvey and the NASLPA had interpreted then current immigration law to mean that any foreign player who crossed the picket line would be subject to deportation. For a brief period it seemed that Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agreed, not that this seems to have prevented foreign players from playing.

When INS announced that it would not deport foreign players on the same day that NASLPA representatives were meeting with the Cosmos, the strike was finished. Not only had the NASLPA demonstrated that it lacked effective leverage with the league, the INS announcement meant that it had no leverage over the league’s marquee players.

The NASLPA officially ended the strike the next day. In all, only 143 players honored the strike, which had lasted a total of five days. The NASLPA had gambled and lost.

The lack of solidarity and support among players during the 1979 work stands in marked contrast to that within the MLSPU at present, with high profile, and highly paid, players like Bradley publically announcing their willingness to strike.

What happened with the NASLPA next?

On May 4, 1979, the Washington Post reported that the NLRB had ordered team owners to bargain in good faith with the NASLPA, finding that the owners had engaged in unfair labor practices since October of 1978 when they refused to recognize the players’ union.

The owners appealed.

On March 26, 1980, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. Court of Appeals had found that “the league and its 24 member clubs were joint employers and that a collective bargaining agent for all players on the U.S. clubs was appropriate,” thus upholding the original decision of the NLRB.

The owners appealed again.

On November 20, 1980, the Washington Post reported that the Department of Labor and the INS were refusing to certify NASL indoor players or approve visa applications for Canadian indoor teams to enter the U.S. pending a finding of the NLRB.

Finally, in the May 7, 1984, issue of Sports Illustrated, it was reported that a collective bargaining agreement had been reached. A main component of the agreement was a $825,000 maximum payroll per year for each club, to be achieved by mandatory annual 10 percent reductions. Howard Samuels, president of the NASL said “The National Basketball Association has a salary cap system based on a percentage of team revenues, but, for the first time in America, this is a total cap . . . and one day, even though this was forced on us, all of American pro sport will thank us.”

The agreement was too little too late. The league folded that year.

Why did the NASL fold?

It wasn’t the strike.

Kenn Tomasch makes the very appropriate argument that the reasons the NASL folded were several. Over-rapid expansion, lack of infrastructure (not one team played in its own, purpose built soccer stadium, little player development of U.S. players, ill-equipped or ill-prepared owners who thought they could make a quick buck from “America’s sport of the ’80’s”), the rise of indoor soccer (this at a time when attempts to “Americanize” soccer were rampant) and competition from MILS, and the “Cosmos-effect” — with which anyone who has seen Once In a Lifetime will be familiar – are all good candidates for a top five list. Add to this list the over-reliance on foreign players, and the effect of the U.S. losing out on hosting the 1986 World Cup, and you begin to have an even more complete list.

Did the strike negatively affect the development of the league?

No.

In 1979, the year of the strike, the NASL saw its highest season attendance average. This was topped in 1980. But after 1980, the league began to fall apart. Here’s Tomasch again,

The real beginning of the end was at the end of the 1980 season, when Rochester, Houston and Washington folded (the Dips having been abandoned by MSG) and Philadelphia, Memphis, New England (having lost Lipton Tea’s ownership) and Detroit (which became the new Diplomats in DC) moved. Within a year, they’d also lost Atlanta, Washington, Minnesota, Dallas, Los Angeles, California and Calgary [or two thirds of the 1978 expansion class] and it was all over but the shouting. The NASL was a dead man walking its last two years.

From a league high of 24 teams only a few seasons before, the NASL entered the 1984 season with only nine teams. This had everything to do with profitability and nothing to do with the strike of 1979. After all, if the strike had been a significant cause of the end of the NASL, wouldn’t it make sense that more of us would know about it?

Which isn’t to say that a players strike now wouldn’t harm both the MLS or the growth of soccer in America. But one should be careful about drawing conclusions about a potential MLS strike from the history of the NASL strike. While the strike is an important event in the history of both the NASL and soccer in America, its relevance to the current negotiations between the MLS and Players Union is limited.

There are plenty of reasons to worry and be pessimistic today without reference to a five day strike that is little remembered.

A version of this article was first published on March 18, 2010.

4 Comments

  1. Good stuff yet again sir.
    .
    Boy this is all so tricky. We know that players earn “shit” and I am all for their right to earn a better living, hell a new RN earns more than a professional soccer player in this country– but I fear what a work stoppage could do to the league and the marginal fans who will not understand nor give a crud.
    .
    I think MLS needs a smack in the face though– so ultimately I am behind the players, the players who do not earn $7 million a year (outliers) – and vow to be on the other side when the dust settles.
    .

  2. OneManWolfpack says:

    I’m hoping the “free agency or bust” talk versus the “we are committed to our current structure” talk is all posturing, given that the negotiations are just really starting to get going. With that said though, if Garber is truly committed to making soccer dominant in this country, with the MLS being that league, the only obvious answer is money. With the current “keep the costs low and the risk to fail lower” structure, money will NEVER COME. As an owner/investor I’m not going to pay more because I feel like it or even because I should. I’m going to pay more because I’m going to make more – i.e. get a great return on my investment.
    .
    It’s starting to become a big boys game, MLS that is, requiring soccer people, with soccer minds, and world class soccer money… MLS must identify that or in 2026 (unfortunately our next World Cup hosting gig) we will be looking at just how popular the NASL has become and saying: “The Union, and MLS… what could have been…”

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    Thanks Joel… Go Atoms!!? Go Fury!!? Haha

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