Brief But Bitter: Sounders Strike of ’79

It lasted just four days and only one round of matches. Still, America’s first work stoppage for professional soccer left a mark as plain as studs being raked down an opponent’s shin.

And while many markets witnessed little disruption to business as usual, Seattle was not spared. All but a handful of players walked out and the replacements’ display was televised for all to see.

Here’s a chronological look back at how the North American Soccer League strike of 1979 played out for the Sounders.

Churskyback
Tony Chursky was the first casualty of the labor unrest. Seattle traded their player representative to California before the strike. (Frank MacDonald Collection)

Owners of the 24 teams had set on a collision course with the players for nearly two years. In 1977, 93 percent of the players voted to authorize formation of a union. By August of 1978, 75 percent voted to be represented by the NASL Players Association.

The National Labor Relations Board promptly certifies the union, and just as promptly NASL owners refuse to recognize the union.

Heading up the new union would be Ed Garvey, also executive director of the NFL Players Association. There had been a 41-day NFL players strike in 1974, and at least two NASL clubs–Dallas and Fort Lauderdale–had NFL owners.

 The Prelude

March 19 – With the season’s first game just five days away, and the Sounders’ opener at home 11 days out, player representatives met in Chicago. Veteran defender Adrian Webster was serving as Seattle’s player rep. Tony Chursky, the team’s popular goalkeeper and outspoken player rep, had been traded to California a month earlier.

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 10.16.50 PMMarch 20 – The union warns foreign players that those with H-1 or H-2 visas may face deportation if they cross a picket line.

March 21 – Seattle players had no complaints about their treatment by ownership. Elsewhere clubs were known to cut injured players and unsatisfactory performances might result in fines or withholding pay. A San Diego player want to appeal red card told he must pay air fare of game’s referee and linesman to attend hearing.

Webster told Seattle media: “I don’t think Seattle players are in favor of a strike, but I think they would support a strike. If it comes to a strike, people on both sides will suffer.”

March 29 – On the eve of the Sounders’ opener versus Tulsa, Garvey meets with players at the Edgewater Hotel. Players begin a strike fund, collecting $1,400. John Ryan, a relatively new signing from Norwich, had been a union rep in England. He adds that Webster has not pressured anyone.

HintonWebster
Adrian Webster, left, served as Sounders player rep and would request a trade following the strike.

March 30 – Three times Seattle goes a goal in front, only to see Alan Hinton’s Roughnecks pull even and eventually win in extra time, 4-3. Sounders coach Jimmy Gabriel terms his defense abysmal. “I think their heads are somewhere else…I don’t know where they are, but they aren’t in soccer.”

March 31 – Along with the other 23 teams, Seattle players take a strike vote. A two-third vote is required for a strike.Each player meets privately with Gabriel to deliver his decision. General manager Jack Daley begins assembling replacement players in the event of a strike.

April 7 – Chursky makes eight saves as California hands Seattle a second defeat in as many matches. “No superlative could do justice to the way I feel,” said Chursky, carrying a bouquet of flowers presented by a Sounders fan who traveled to Anaheim.

The Strike

April 13 – On Friday, less than 36 hours prior to the start of 12 matches, Garvey announces the players have voted to strike, 252-113 (69 percent). “There is only one issue,” he says. Recognition of the union. Management can settle this by obeying the law and coming to the bargaining table. It won’t cost them a dime, yet they seem hell-bent on destroying the union.”

Alan Hudson '79
Captain Alan Hudson’s decision to strike helped swing all but five players in the vote. (Frank MacDonald Collection)

Sounders players meet at Renton Stadium. Five decide to cross the line and travel to Dallas. Alan Hudson, captain, explains: ““A lot depended on what I was going to do. Also, the youngsters needed someone to stand up for them…It’s something they believe in…(management) is treating us like school kids, not like professional footballers. I’m not for a strike, but unless you’ve got a union you can’t be proud.” Gabriel says he’s shocked by Hudson’s decision.

GM Daley says the game will go on. Tulsa’s Hinton has offered players, if needed; the Roughnecks cross the line en masse.

Says Daley: “One of our young players said he’s been threatened with a fine if he crosses the picket line. There’s been a lot of intimidation. Not only all their salaries, but all their benefits stop. We have unemployment insurance, but we’re not terminating the players. They are quitting.”

Awaiting in Dallas is a Tornado team (owned by Hunt) virtually unscathed by the strike.

Among those crossing the line for Seattle is Ryan, who admits, “I’ve changed my mind about two or three times.” Keeper Mike Ivanow also travels, adding, “If players come back after a day or two, they’ll have blown the union for all time.”

Gabriel as coach
Assistants Bobby Howe, Harry Redknapp and head coach Jimmy Gabriel all suited up and went the full 90 at Dallas. (Frank MacDonald Collection)

Gabriel and his assistants, Bobby Howe and Harry Redknapp, will all come out of retirement to play. Gabriel, 38, has not played in two years. Among the six newly-signed replacements is Ron Davies, a former Gabriel teammate at Southampton.

The Match

April 14 – Match day and more than 21,000 fill Ownby Stadium. The game is being televised live back to Seattle, where most of the striking Sounders gather to shoot pool with the game playing in the background. It’s expected to be a rout, but led by Gabriel the makeshift Sounders battle on. The Tornado prevails eventually on a goal in the 85th minute. Redknapp nearly scores late, denied by a diving save.

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 10.16.59 PMAl Miller, Dallas coach, discloses it had been a trying time for everyone. “The strike sure as hell upset all of us. Their intimidating procedures raised hell with our players. Phone calls, visas, scabs, deportation, everything I guess.”

Howe terms it a “heroic stand.”

“I loved it,” exclaims young Andy Churlin, a Shoreline High School graduate plucked from the state league along with Steve Newman and former Sounder Roy Sinclair.

“For a team that was thrown together in 24 hours I was very pleased,” says Davies. “I thought Dallas was very frustrated.”

An exhausted Gabriel states, “We’re all feeling pain. The boys were getting cramps, but they kept going.”

Across the wire services come reports from other matches. Many games, like Seattle-Dallas, were mismatches of haves versus have-nots. Despite a clear majority voting for the strike, only 135 (27 percent) players carry out the threat. Seven teams account for 91 percent of the striking players.

Canadian law prohibited Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver from striking. The Cosmos, after initially voting 20-2 to strike, only lose one player.

The Aftermath

April 16 – Players picket outside the Sounders offices on Occidental. Two trucks refuse to cross the line and make deliveries.

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 10.18.05 PMThe players issue a statement: “We are David in a confrontation with Goliath…We are just a bunch of simple people who love the game of soccer, wanted to be treated like human beings and are willing to stand up for what we believe in…You have to respect Jimmy’s coaching ability in selecting the correct strategy to make the best of the limited resources.”

April 17 – After the tepid overall response, the union leadership orders players back to work after four days out. Only 16 Canadians and 47 aliens strike league-wide.

Garvey criticizes an indecisive government that first said foreign players crossing the line would be deported, only to have the Justice Department reverse it.  Concludes Garvey: “We place our faith in the American legal system, which we believe will require the owners to recognize and bargain with our union.”

April 18 – Rather than train, the Sounders gather together for a meeting. An unnamed player says, “It was all very unfortunate. We’re all pleased that the strike’s over. We just want to get back to playing.”

April 21 – Winless Seattle hosts an unbeaten and unified L.A. in the Kingdome. Gabriel’s team sheet features the five holdouts combined with five strikers. Davies is the lone replacement player in the XI. The Sounders smash the Aztecs, 4-0, with the holdouts accounting for two goals and two assists.

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 10.18.15 PMAfterward Gabriel says the union situation had damaged his team’s spirit for more than a year. Benched, two days later Webster requests a trade; he later withdraws it.

May 2 – The NLRB orders owners to bargain with the union, giving them 20 days to comply. Six months later, with owners remaining defiant, the NLRB charges the league with 40 counts of U.S. labor law violations.

Postscript – Seattle goes on to finish 13-17 and miss the playoffs. It is the first losing record in six seasons. Gabriel resigns.

Chursky, who was among California’s striking players, never again started for the Surf, and was traded to Chicago by midseason.

In 1980, owners were denied by both the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. In April 1984 the NASLPA and owners finally signed a CBA. The league folded following that season.

Coming up, a visit with some of the key figures in the ’79 Sounders, now 36 years after the strike.