Professional Referee Organization accused by refs union of violating CBA

The union that represents soccer referees in the U.S. and Canada has accused the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), which employs and makes match assignments for MLS referees, of engaging in unfair labor practices.

The Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA) asserts in a filing with the National Labor Relations Board dated April 12 -- a copy of which ESPN FC obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request -- that PRO "engaged in unlawful direct dealing" whereby PRO negotiated directly with a union-represented referee for the purpose of paying them more than the amount stipulated by the collective bargaining agreement signed by PRO and the PSRA back in 2014.

The charge alleges that PRO engaged in these negotiations without the knowledge or consent of the PSRA. The charge document also states that, "The unlawful direct dealing resulted in multiple individual contracts between the employer, PRO, and the Union-represented Referee."

The case has gone to an arbitrator, and a decision is expected by early August. While the document doesn't identify the referee by name, ESPN FC obtained a transcript of an arbitration hearing for the case that took place on May 5. In that transcript, the individual in question was identified as current MLS Referee of the Year, Alan Kelly.

"It's deplorable that PRO thought that they could get away with a clear violation of the CBA by paying one of our members something that they negotiated with him privately outside of the CBA," said former PSRA vice president Steven Taylor via telephone. "It's terribly disrespectful to every other bargaining unit member, and it goes against the letter and the spirit of the entire CBA."

Reached by telephone, PRO general manager Peter Walton stated that he couldn't comment until after the arbitrator reached a decision.

In the transcript, Walton admitted to paying Kelly salary and benefits -- excluding game fees -- that are more than double what is mandated by the CBA. Included in Kelly's contract was a signing bonus, a housing allowance, and the reimbursing of travel expenses back to his native Ireland. The CBA explicitly prohibits the paying of additional compensation to officials outside of what is specified by the agreement. The transcript also revealed that the maximum annual salary -- excluding game fees -- for a PSRA referee is $74,000.

The PSRA is asking that there be no further payments made to Kelly above what is spelled out in the CBA, no individual contracts, and no direct dealing. The union isn't asking that Kelly repay any money, but it is requesting that some form of compensation be made to the other members of the bargaining unit. It is also asking that all legal expenses incurred by the PSRA be paid by PRO, and that Kelly pay union dues on the extra compensation he received.

According to a profile of Kelly on PRO's web site, he began working for PRO in January of 2014, and was originally hired to be an assistant training manager. But when PRO locked out the PSRA referees during CBA negotiations in 2014, Kelly crossed the picket line, and worked MLS matches. Kelly's performances were such that when the CBA was agreed upon, PRO continued to have him work matches. The terms of the CBA stipulate that any referee who works four or more MLS games automatically becomes a member of the bargaining unit, and is thus subject to the terms of the CBA. Kelly officially reached that threshold in June of 2014.

When asked if an individual could serve as both a referee and an assistant training manager, Taylor said that would fall under the category of "blended work" which is strictly forbidden by the CBA.

According to the transcript, PRO's contention is that during CBA negotiations on March 18, 2014, Walton and PRO counsel Howard Robbins worked out a verbal agreement with PSRA attorney Lucas Middlebrook -- without any other union officials present -- to allow Kelly to referee games and still be paid at his assistant manager salary.

Walton was concerned that if Kelly's salary was reduced, Kelly would leave PRO. According to the transcript, Middlebrook not only denied that any such deal had been made, but that the conversation ever took place. The union's negotiating protocols, which were known to PRO, required that at least three bargaining committee members be present in order to reach any binding agreement related to the CBA.

Reached by telephone, Middlebrook declined to comment on the case.

The transcript also revealed that another MLS referee, Kevin Stott, had a side agreement to be paid differently than his union colleagues, but that agreement was spelled out in the CBA.

PRO is responsible for administrating referee programs in North America as well as assigning referees to work games in MLS, the NASL, the USL, and the NWSL. It is funded by MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation. It employs around 90 referees in the U.S. and Canada.