Monday, April 20, 2009

Rowdies Avoid Strike, 4/14/79

Just a few weeks into the 1979 season, the Tampa Bay Rowdies faced a major challenge that had nothing to do with an on-field opponent. The North American Soccer League Players Association (NASLPA), only formed the previous summer, proposed a strike to commence on Friday April 13. The NASPL contended that a strike would be an appropriate response to the North American Soccer League's refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the union led by Executive Director Ed Garvey, who served in the same capacity for the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA).

League owners resented the presence of Garvey, who led the NFLPA through a strike in 1974, and worried that he would be a detriment to the relationship between players and owners. Also at issue was the status of the hundreds of players in the United States on work visas. Going on strike would threaten their status and possibly result in deportation. The owners, whose most bankable stars were from either South America or Europe, cringed at the thought of the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) deporting their best players.

Players certainly could not have known what to think or who to believe. If the INS recognized the strike, foreign players who crossed the picket line could face deportation. The Justice Department, however, contended that any player who went on strike would violate his H-2 work visa and also face deportation. A U.S. District Court judge, in the meantime, ruled that he would not allow any player to be deported without a full and thorough accounting of the situation.

Throughout the week, however, all indications were that the Tampa Bay Rowdies would go forward with their scheduled game on April 14 at Tampa Stadium against the Toronto Blizzard, despite a vote of 252-113 by players around the league who favored a strike. Still, Rowdies owner George Strawbridge expressed his contempt for the secret ballot vote, calling it a "Russian election."

"It's a most unfortunate thing when a man from another sport can only produce an action that is so destructive to the sport," Strawbridge said. "It is quite discouraging for me personally."

Friday the 13th arrived and the team practiced as usual while waiting word from Garvey about the strike. Around 11:15 a.m., each team received a message from Garvey announcing the strike via telex.

"This is an unfair labor practice strike," the statement read. "We ask only one thing and that is recognition. Needless energy will be inflicted on the NASL by your refusal to recognize the NASLPA and come to the bargaining table."

Rowdies coach Gordon Jago ripped Garvey for disrupting the season and threatening a sport still trying to grow in popularity.

"I don't think Mr. Garvey has the best interests of the game at heart," Jago said. "This game is just trying to get on its feet. It is not in a position to take a strike. People who are just getting interested will lose interest."

The Rowdies, as a team, seemed to grasp this and expressed little interest in going on strike. The players reached a decision on whether to strike on Friday afternoon, but Farrukh Quraishi, the Rowdies' player representative, declined to announce their intentions until the following day so as not to influence other players around the country.

Hours before their game against Toronto, Quraishi explained that the Rowdies would not go on strike. He said that while the team agreed in the necessity of a player's association, they could not support "a strike-action which could threaten the very existence of the game which we are all trying to establish in the United States."

He added that the team would play out of respect for their fans and the burgeoning sport. Team captain Rodney Marsh never believed the Rowdies would go on strike, calling the prospect "sheer lunacy."

The Rowdies showed their appreciation and respect for their fans by putting on a memorable show against Toronto. Tampa Bay set a league record with four goals in a 5:01 span in the first half en route to a 7-1 shellacking of the Blizzard in front of 23,675 fans.

On April 17, the strike's outcome started to become clear. The INS issued a decision saying that foreign players participating in league games would not face deportation if they had valid work visas prior to the strike. Foreign-born players on the Rowdies were finally able to breathe easy.

No longer having any leverage over the players, Garvey called an end to the five-day strike the following day.

Farrukh Quraishi said that despite the failure of the strike, it at least drew some attention to the issues facing soccer players.

"People now may not take for granted that soccer players are highly paid and have the life of Riley that some might think we have," he said. "Now, people can understand some of the problems in the sport and maybe something can be done to get changes for the better."

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