Major League Soccer's simmering labour dispute heated up Wednesday as Toronto FC defender Nick Garcia said he expects the players to strike if a new collective bargaining agreement is not negotiated before the start of the regular season — in two weeks.
The league's old CBA ran out Feb. 25 after the league and the players union twice extended the five-year labour pact, which was originally to expire Jan. 31.
With the start of the 2010 MLS campaign scheduled to kick off March 25, time is of the essence to have a new deal in place to ensure a work stoppage is avoided — a fact recognized by the league and the union, which both met with U.S. federal mediator George Cohen in Washington, D.C., this week.
Last week, MLS commissioner Don Garber told the Associated Press that the league would not lock out the players and he expects the start of the regular season will not be delayed.
But Garcia says the players are prepared to walk out if a new labour deal isn't in place within two weeks.
"We are united as a union and if we need to strike, we will," declared Garcia, one of TFC's two union reps.
Garcia added later: "We're anticipating not having the season starting [on time]. As of now, for us, we're very far apart — even with the mediator there in D.C. We're hoping things can get done, but quite frankly I don't think we're confident things will."
Beginning the season under the terms of the expired CBA, as per Garber's suggestion, is not an option, according to Garcia.
"We're not prepared do that," the Toronto defender stated. "That's one thing we are not going to [do]. We are prepared and willing to not start the season with the current CBA."
Issues at the heart of the labour dispute include the structure of contracts and the security and freedom of players.
MLS is a single-entity structure, which means all players sign with the league rather than individual teams. The union alleges that close to 80 per cent of players in MLS have non-guaranteed contracts.
Under the current pact, players can be transferred to another club without their consent. Even when a player is released from his contract, he's not free to sign with another team in the league.
In effect, the union argues, there is no player free agency in MLS, unlike in the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball.
A veteran of 10 MLS seasons, Garcia says the league hasn't come close to addressing the union's major concerns regarding improved player rights.
"We, as a union, have come more than half-way [in the negotiations]," Garcia stated. "To this point, the league hasn't taken us seriously, so for me I don't think real issues have been addressed and I know other guys on other teams feel the same way."
He also accused the league of dragging its feet and leaving it so late to get a new deal done before the start of the season.
"Don [Garber] said he didn't want it to come down to the last hour to do things, but we've been at the table with all of our cards out for the league to see and we don't feel that they've shown us their hand," Garcia said.
MLS issued a statement Wednesday evening, saying that the league and the players union have agreed to continue collective bargaining agreement discussions with the federal mediator.