CHICAGO (CN) — The world champion U.S. women’s soccer team cannot strike for improved conditions and wages before the Summer Olympics, a federal judge ruled on Friday.
The Chicago-based United States Soccer Federation Inc., the nonprofit governing body of soccer in the U.S., sued the U.S.Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association, a soccer union, in federal court in February over a dispute in the parties’ 2005 collective bargaining agreement.
The parties have contracted with each other since the union’s inception in 2001, and the 2005 collective bargaining agreement in question ran through 2012.
The contract contained a “no strike, no lockout” clause, which barred the union from authorizing, encouraging or engaging in any strike, work stoppage, slowdown or other concerted interference with federation activities, and it prohibited the nonprofit from engaging in a lockout.
When the parties began negotiating a new agreement in the fall of 2012, several issues arose due to the integration of the team into the newly-formed National Women’s Soccer League.
The parties thus agreed to execute a memorandum of understanding that would govern their relationship until a new agreement could be reached. The players unanimously accepted the memorandum on March 17, 2013.
Although the memorandum does not contain any language expressly stating that it incorporates the unmodified terms of the parties’ 2005 agreement, the parties acted as if it did.
But the union’s general counsel, Richard Nichols, notified the federation that it planned to terminate or modify the memorandum, and that it reserved its right to challenge the federation’s claim that the parties had a collective bargaining agreement, on Christmas Eve of 2015.
The union refused to agree that it would not strike prior to December 2016, and told the media that it was possible that the players “will have to strike.”
The federation then filed suit, seeking damages for anticipatory breach of contract and a declaration that the memorandum includes the 2005 contract’s no-strike, no-lockout provision.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman partially ruled in favor of the federation Friday, rejecting the union’s claim that an oral agreement to incorporate the unmodified terms of the 2005 contract was not part of the memorandum.
Neither was it an “unenforceable secret side agreement,” the judge ruled.
The union “has offered no evidence establishing that the agreement to incorporate the unmodified terms of the 2005 [contract] was concluded in secret, and therefore has provided no basis for this court to hold it inadmissible or unenforceable on that ground,” Coleman wrote.
“This court accordingly concludes that the [memorandum] incorporates the unmodified terms of the 2005 [contract],” she added.
The judge also rejected the union’s claim that the players did not know the memorandum incorporated the 2005 terms when they voted to approve it.
John Langel, the union’s general counsel and acting executive director until 2014, “testified that he told the players that the [memorandum] carried over the unaltered terms of the prior [contract] ‘over the course of several communications both verbally and in writing,'” Coleman wrote. “This testimony is sufficient to create a material dispute of fact regarding what the players knew when they voted to ratify the [memorandum].”
The judge later added: “The undisputed facts demonstrate that Langel informed [the union’s president, Sunil Gulati] that the players had voted to approve the [memorandum] and that, from this communication, it was Gulati’s understanding that the players’ vote encompassed the agreement to continue the unmodified terms of the 2005 [contract].”
The union’s attorney, Jeffrey Kessler with Winston & Strawn in New York, said, “The players are disappointed by the ruling, but it will not deter or distract them from their pursuit of equal pay for equal work. That is their main objective.”
U.S. Soccer spokesman Neil Buethe said the federation is “pleased with the court’s decision and remains committed to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement to take effect at the beginning of next year.”
The federation’s attorney, Russell Sauer Jr. with Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles declined to comment on the ruling, deferring to Buethe.
After the federation sued, five players filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint on March 29, alleging they are paid about four times less than the men’s team.
The federation has served as a member of the Fédéracion Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) since 1914, and is recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
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