CHICAGO — A federal judge in Chicago ruled Friday that the world champion U.S. women's soccer team does not have the right to strike to seek improved conditions and wages before the Summer Olympics, concluding the team remains bound by a no-strike clause in earlier agreements.
The case pits the team's union, the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team Players Association, against the Chicago-based governing body, the U.S. Soccer Federation. The federation sued to clarify the strike issue.
The federation warned that a strike could have forced the women to pull out of the Olympics, which, it said, would have hurt the development of the sport in the U.S. The union wanted the option of striking, though it hadn't said definitively that it would strike.
The lawsuit focused on strike rights is related to a wage discrimination complaint filed by five players in March with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The complaint alleges that the women players in some cases earn as much as four times less than their counterparts on the men's national team.
U.S. Soccer maintains that characterization is misleading because the men and women are paid differently under collective bargaining agreements and because the complaint's allegation that the women generate more revenue is based on figures from last year, when the team won the World Cup and went on a victory tour.
Oral arguments before U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman last week focused on whether an existing agreement between the union and the federation bars the women from striking. The federation has said a collective bargaining agreement for all purposes remains in effect until Dec. 31, while the union says any such agreement has already expired.
In her 13-page ruling, posted Friday, the judge says the union didn't persuade her that terms of an earlier collective bargaining agreement — including a no-strike clause — did not carry over when the sides signed a memorandum of understanding seeking to clarify contractual terms in 2013. Coleman was dismissive of union arguments that a no-strike provision should have been spelled out explicitly in the memorandum.
"Federal law encourages courts to be liberal in their recognition and interpretation of collective bargaining agreements, so as to lessen strife and encourage congenial relations between unions and companies," she wrote. "A collective bargaining agreement may be partly or wholly oral and a written collective bargaining agreement may be orally modified."
Federation lawyer Russell Sauer Jr. said during oral arguments that a no-strike clause is implied in the still-valid memorandum of understanding. A lawyer for the union balked, saying the federation failed to secure a no-strike clause in writing and cannot argue now that such a provision is implied.
Asked by the judge why the federation did not insist on a no-strike clause in the memorandum, another federation lawyer, Amy Quartarolo, said it was made clear in emails and other communications that a no-strike provision in previous CBAs carried over into the 2013 agreement. In her ruling, Judge Coleman indicated that she largely agreed with that contention.
The Olympic Games, which the women's team qualified for earlier this year, start in Brazil on Aug. 5. The American women won the World Cup with a 5-2 victory over Japan in Canada last year.
The union hadn't formally identified grievances that might trigger a strike. Many players, however, have voiced concern over gender equity in soccer. Some pointed to the artificial turf the women had to play on in Canada, pointing out the men's World Cup is played on natural grass.