CBA Negotiations / US Soccer History

A look back at the NASL strike of 1979

With the possibility of MLS players going on strike if a new collective bargaining agreement is not reached with the league ahead of the first game of the season on March 25, a spate of articles have appeared about the NASL players strike in 1979. Perhaps the most important was a story in the March 11 issue of the in a piece posted here on the Philly Soccer Page.

On the face of it, the article seems quite authoritative. It was written by Frank Dell’Appa, a respected writer, is in a respected newspaper, and is full of quotes from “local attorney Steve Gans.” Gans seems to be an authoritative source with a sharp memory of the NASL team of the time, the Boston Tea Men. He says, for example,

In 1977 and ’78, NASL teams had a lot of success and were getting TV contracts. The league had momentum and teams like the Tea Men were getting 30,000 [at Foxboro Stadium] going head to head with a Red Sox-Yankees game at Fenway.

Then, the first TV game they had on Channel 4, [the Tea Men] used replacement players against the Philadelphia Fury. There was a crowd of 400 rattling around at Veterans Stadium, which tells you the quality wasn’t good.

Gans’ authority as a source is underscored by his apparent history with soccer. In college at the time of the strike, Gans says that he was approached by the Tea Men to be a scab player during the NASL strike, which he refused to do. A few decades later, Gans “offered to organize an alternative players union in an attempt to reach a settlement” during the protracted legal proceedings surrounding the Fraser et al v. Major League Soccer case which challenged the league’s single entity status.

The article certainly paints a gloomy picture. Not only does Gans intimate that the NFL Players Association’s funding of both the NASL strike and the Fraser case means they are trying to scuttle a growing competitor, he unequivocally states, “Of all the things that led to the NASL’s demise, that [strike] was one of the top five things.” Who could blame the more pessimistic or less informed among us for drawing the conclusion that dark historical forces means that a strike by MLS players will result in the death of the MLS? I fancy myself something of a soccer history fan and the article freaked me out.

But it turns out that the Boston Globe article is littered with factual errors. That Dell’Appa has to state that the official attendance figure for the Fury/Team Men match was actually 3,291 and not 400 should have been reason enough for him to be skeptical about what Gans has to say. Here are a few more errors, pointed out in a recent post on kenn.com by Kenn Tomasch: the Boston Tea Men did not exist in 1977. While the Tea Men did get 30,000 spectators for a game against the Cosmos in 1978, the Red Sox were in Chicago that day. In the 1978 season the Tea Men never had a home game that went up against a Red Sox/Yankees game. Of Gans’ assertion that the 1979 strike was one of the top five reasons the NASL folded, Tomasch simply says “Bollocks.” (More on that later.)

The Boston Globe article was widely cited on the web. With this in mind, a look back at the events surrounding the NASL strike is warranted. What follows is a review of the history of the 1979 strike with some thoughts about how it compares with the current situation between MLS and the Players Union.

Just what were the issues that led to the strike in 1979?

The reason the 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 labor dispute.

By the way, Ed Garvey was also executive director of the National Football League Players Association, a position he held from 1971 through 1983. This turns the suggestion by Gans that NFLPA support of the NASLPA suggests some kind of ominous conspiracy into ridiculous fancy.

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 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 paid poorly compared to players in other leagues around the world. For many foreign players, 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 what foreign players were paid.

At the time of the strike, Americans made up 45 percent of the players in the league’s 24 teams and earned on average approximately $12,000 a year. Foreign players earned on average approximately $20,000 a year. Using a historical currency converter, this works out to about $36,000 a year for American players and $60,000 for foreign players.

Using figures from the MLS Players Union, Sports Illustrated reports that the average salary for a MLS player at the beginning of last season was $147,945. Because the average is skewed by the high salaries of a few select players, SI rightly suggests that the median income of $88,000 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 may be true that most MLS players are comparatively better off than their NASL counterparts. That said, since a median income of $88,000 still means that half of the players in the MLS make less than that, perhaps it would be wise to take Kasey Keller’s assertion that a strike will not be about money with a grain of salt.

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 had 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 weekend 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 union 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.

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.

Tomasch makes the very appropriate argument that the reasons the NASL folded are 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” — which anyone who has seen Once In a Lifetime will be familiar with — are all good candidates for a top five list. Add to this list the over-reliance on foreign players, and the effect of FIFA not naming the U.S. the host country for the 1986 World Cup, and you begin to have an even more complete list.

Did the strike negatively effect the development of the league?

No.

In 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. 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 the 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.

5 Comments

  1. Tulsa was the Roughnecks and Atlanta was the Chiefs, but other than that, you’ve got it. Thank you.

  2. Ed Farnsworth says:

    Thanks for the correction Kenn. I have a hard time keeping all of the NASL team names straight. And thanks for the fine work you are doing at kenn.com.

  3. Pingback: The Philly Soccer Page » The World Cup drought: US Soccer 1950-1990

  4. Pingback: Looking back at the 1979 NASL players strike

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com