On Friday, Judge Coleman of the Northern District of Illinois federal district court granted summary judgment in favor of the U.S. Soccer Federation, finding that relevant terms (including the “no strike, no lockout” provision) of the parties’ previous collective bargaining agreement (CBA) will remain in effect for the rest of 2016.
Earlier this year, U.S. Soccer sued the USWNT players association after the players threatened to breach the parties existing CBA (on Christmas Eve 2015). U.S. Soccer requested a ruling by the court stating that the relevant terms of the parties’ 2005 CBA remain in effect. The fight revolves around the “no strike, no lockout” provision in the 2005 CBA, “which barred the players from authorizing, encouraging, or engaging in any strike, work stoppage, slowdown or other concerted interference with the activities of the Federation…”
In 2012, when the parties began negotiating a new CBA, they ultimately agreed to an interim agreement, called the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which runs through the rest of this year. The MOU did not explicitly contain a “no strike, no lockout” clause, nor did it expressly incorporate the terms of the 2005 CBA.
However, according to U.S. Soccer’s acting Executive Director John Langel’s testimony and emails with the USWNT, the terms of 2005 CBA were to remain unchanged unless they were modified by the language of the MOU. Thus, according to U.S. Soccer, since the “no strike, no lockout” clause was not addressed in the MOU, it remains in effect.
What did the Judge Rule?
The Judge decided the following legal issue:
Should the Court look beyond the actual text of the MOU and instead interpret the contract to reflect the parties’ intentions when drafted?
Answer: Yes. Contract law dictates that if the contract’s language is unambiguous, then anything not written in the contract (such as emails between the parties) cannot be considered. However, if a contract does not contain a “complete expression” of the terms agreed upon, then courts can look to outside documents to supplement the contract.
Here, the court found that since the MOU (1) did not explicitly state that it was a complete contract, (2) used terms of art that were only defined in the 2005 CBA, and (3) expressly included rights laid out only in the 2005 CBA, the contract was not a complete expression of the parties’ agreement and, therefore, the court is able to look at beyond the actual text of the MOU to define its meaning.
Since emails and other correspondence between the parties clearly state that the terms of the 2005 CBA (including the “no lockout, no strike” provision) were to remain in effect for the duration of the MOU, the court interpreted the parties agreement to include the terms of the 2005 CBA not modified by the MOU.
What is the Impact of the Ruling?
This dispute is all about leverage. As evidenced by their legal attack on multiple fronts (more on the USWNT’s EEOC complaint here), the USWNT does not believe that it is being compensated fairly and would like to change that as soon as possible. Unfortunately for them, the parties have a CBA that dictates compensation and doesn’t expire until the end of the year, after the Olympics.
The team’s trump card was the threat to strike during the Rio Olympics. Even if the team was never actually going skip the Games, the threat of a boycott would carry the possibility of a public relations and financial fallout for U.S. Soccer. This decision eviscerates the possibility of a strike and reduces the team’s leverage for negotiating additional compensation before the MOU expires at the end of the year. The two sides will continue negotiated a new CBA to begin in 2017 and wait to see how the EEOC complaint plays out.