So, yeah, the optics don’t look great.
On Wednesday, which happened to be National Girls and Women in Sports Day, U.S. Soccer filed a lawsuit in a Chicago federal court against the U.S. women’s national team players union—the same players who won national acclaim with their triumph at the 2015 World Cup.
In U.S. Soccer’s view, the point of the suit is simple. It wants the court to establish that its labor agreement with the players expires at the end of 2016, per a memorandum of understanding that was agreed to in 2013.
In the court documents, U.S. Soccer says union executive director Rich Nichols is challenging the validity of the memorandum of understanding and had threatened a work stoppage by the players as soon as February 24, three days after the end of the Olympic qualifying tournament:
“Mr. Nichols unilaterally declared that the current collective bargaining agreement will terminate on February 24, 2016 (not on December 31, 2016 as agreed), and thereafter suggested that the Women’s National Team members will no longer be bound by the ‘no strike’ clause and, therefore, will be entitled to ‘engage in actions’ unless the parties agree to a new collective bargaining agreement.”
Reached by SI.com, Nichols denied that he had threatened a work stoppage as soon as February 24.
“That’s totally inaccurate,” he said. “There were no threats issued. What we did was, I did indicate that we were going to reserve all our legal rights as anyone would do in a situation like this … And I can’t get in their heads, but I guess they interpreted that as being some threat. We don’t issue threats, and my communications are usually quite clear.”
One U.S. player said the team—which is in Texas for Olympic qualifying—was not expecting this news to come out when it did.
If the court rules that the memorandum of understanding is invalid, then the players would have much more leverage negotiating a new CBA with the possibility that they could strike before the Olympics. If the court rules that the memorandum of understanding is valid through the end of 2016, then it would be a legal victory for U.S. Soccer.
Nichols added: “We’re pretty disappointed that they took this matter to court. Surprised too. But mainly disappointed, because we have an honest disagreement about whether or not there’s a valid CBA and about whether or not there’s an expiration term on the MOU. And it’s an honest disagreement that two business parties should be able to resolve through discussions, which is what I thought we were doing.”
Nichols said there was no chance there would be a work stoppage during the Olympic qualifying tournament, which starts for the U.S. this Wednesday.
When asked if he wants to see a new CBA reached before the Olympics, he said: “Absolutely. We’d like to see one reached next week … Anything that has to do with working conditions for the team is on the table.”
Labor relations between the U.S. women’s players and U.S. Soccer have grown more strained at times in the past year. The players voted to hire Nichols as their executive director in November 2014, replacing John Langel, who had been in the position since 2000.
Nichols has adopted a tougher stance against U.S. Soccer since taking the job.
Players have become increasingly vocal about what they feel is unequal treatment from U.S. Soccer compared to the U.S. men’s team on a number of issues, from playing games on artificial turf (when the men play on grass) to flying mostly in coach class (when the men fly mostly in business class) to not being paid per point earned in the World Cup group stage (when the men are paid that way).
When the U.S. players were dissatisfied with the artificial turf playing surface for a friendly in Hawaii in December, U.S. Soccer ended up canceling the game.