Questions still surround lacrosse officials’ decision to unionize

July 23, 2017

The recent National Labor Relations Board decision to allow lacrosse officials in the PIAA to unionize has left more questions than answers. One thing is for sure.

Everything is open to negotiation.

The NLRB ruled this month lacrosse officials who are sent to public and private school games in Western Pennsylvania are employees of a state athletic association, not independent contractors.

The 2-1 result rejecting the PIAA appeal from a 2015 suit means the Office and Professional Employees International Union can represent approximately 140 officials who work high school and junior high school games in the Pittsburgh area.

“We’re very pleased with the decision and we’re excited the labor board has said what we believed all along,” said Mario Seneca, who is representing the lacrosse officials for the OPEIU.

This is the first time high school officials have asserted they have rights under the NLRB. Many states have loosely based organizations whose representatives negotiate the contracts.

Seneca believes unionizing will take place in other sports after the success of this case.

“The level of interest varies across the state, but there is no doubt we have the interest to expand this across sports in the PIAA,” he said.

Seneca said there are many issues that need to be addressed, aside from pay. He said the union will evaluate PIAA policies on supervision and evaluation of officials, transparency in assigning officials to games and other “unilateral policies we have no voice or say on.”

The PIAA is determining what options remain now that the NLRB failed to rule in its favor.

“We think the NLRB has erred, as determined by the chairman’s decision,” said PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi. “That means we’re going to take our time to review the decision and see what’s in the best interests of the association. We’ll take what avenues are available to us to fight it or reject it.”

Lombardi said the arrangement for paying official fees is not uniform across the state.

“In some sports, the individual schools determine (official’s fee),” said Lombardi. “Some have leagues or conferences that determine it. It’s a hodge podge throughout the state. Every area seems to be different.”

And Lombardi believes the unionization of other sports officials would create a chaotic atmosphere and hopes that does not develop.

“I don’t think the officials want that,” said Lombardi. “Think about how they would feel about being employees. … Right now, if you get a game, you can turn it down (as an independent contractor). Does that mean if you (as an employee) get a game and turn it down, you are refusing to work? Would there be action taken? There are a whole lot of questions that need to be answered. If I were an official, I’d be petrified.”

Lombardi was scheduled to meet with the WPIAL Board of Control for an annual meeting and expected the situation to be discussed.

“One of the topics is to discuss the NLRB decision,” said Tim O’Malley, WPIAL executive secretary. “I guess we’ll find out at that time what impact it might have.”

O’Malley said the district has “no involvement” with what officials are paid or how they are assigned during the season.

“Our board only makes a determination what the (district) pays for a postseason event, and the board looks at that on an annual basis,” said O’Malley. “In this year’s budget, the board took it upon themselves to (allow) a $5 increase across the board to the officials’ fees in all sports. Anytime, there is a nominal raise with the amount of officials we have for our various postseason events, it equates to an increase of 25-30 thousand dollars in our annual budget.”

Dan Boyle, head of District 7 lacrosse officials, said the case evolved two years ago when the PIAA unilaterally decided to reduce payment by $5 per game.

“They told us the price for everything is going up and they have cost concerns,” said Boyle. “They refused to negotiate with us.”

So the officials from the WPIAL (District 7) and city League (District 8) took a vote to unionize in order to get stronger negotiating power. The vote was 50-31 in favor of unionizing. In July of 2015, the NLRB ruled the lacrosse officials were employees of the PIAA and not independent contractors as the PIAA contended.

“The failure to negotiate was the whole (issue),” Boyle said. “We just wanted to sit down and talk. When the PIAA refused to do that, that was when some members of our organization went forth with the decision to go to the NLRB.”

Joe Tuscano has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1980. He has covered all sports for the newspaper, including the Steelers, Pirates, Pitt football, local college football and wrestling. He has worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Jeannette News-Dispatch and North Hills Record. He graduated from Duquesne University in 1980.

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