Nobody wins in a strike. It’s just a matter of who loses the most.
The NASL strike of 1979 was hit-and-miss, but Sounders players and management both meant business. Although the stoppage lasted only five days and Seattle’s weakened team was beaten, that was only the beginning.
In several ways those trying times marked, once and for all, an end of the club’s innocence, and with it perhaps the fans’ undying affection. What began as Camelot in 1974, was exposed as being, like anything else, a business. Warts and all.
Two of the key local figures in that labor battle were Adrian Webster, the interim players’ representative, and Sounders GM Jack Daley. Now some 35 years on, with Major League Soccer now facing a potential work stoppage while wrangling over a new CBA, Webster, Daley and others show no apparent regret for their measures.
“The strike was never just about the players wanting more money,” emphasizes Webster, now 63 and residing in his native England. “But regardless of what team you were playing for, we felt there needed to be a standard set of rules and regulations.”
Not All Treated Alike
Some of the 24 NASL clubs were notorious for their mistreatment of players. That was not the case in Seattle, where the ownership group was comprised of community-minded business leaders. Six of them also owned the Seahawks, two others were investors in the Mariners.
However, each player was just a penstroke away from a trade, possibly to one of the league’s dregs.
“Seattle and New York were much different than some of the other franchises,” notes Jimmy McAlister, just 22 during that strike season. “There was the Rochester Lancers of the world and everything in between. Some teams would cut you after a significant injury.”
Adds Webster: “There were certain teams that you wouldn’t want to end up at…(where players) had no say, got injured and received no medical help or didn’t get paid.”
Daley concedes that “there were more ‘Rochester’ type franchises than Seattle, Cosmos, Minnesota and Tampa Bay. (But) it was a tough sale to tell a franchise to up his benefits ante when he was already losing over $1 million a year.”
The decision to strike was not taken lightly. Sounders players were forfeiting pay to, essentially, protest the treatment of brethren elsewhere. At first, Seattle players and others around the NASL were gung-ho. Yet as the strike vote neared Webster said more and more got “squeaky bums.”
Alan Hudson, the team captain and high-profile acquisition from Arsenal, carried substantial influence. Hudson said he had always been “anti-management” in England. Yet he had no complaints with Seattle ownership and held coach Jimmy Gabriel in great esteem.
“I had to stick with my teammates for ever obvious reason,” says Hudson now. “Had I not gone out with the boys, my three-year contract would’ve been hell.” He says Gabriel understood.
Daley believes pressure was brought to bear on players to strike, if only for the sake of harmony within the ranks. McAlister, still living at home at the time, admits he did what veterans told him. Webster said the biggest fear was that a long, protracted strike would weigh heavily on those players with families.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the Sounders during those early years was their camaraderie. They were talented and earnest in their approach, moreover they played for each other. Then came the time to decide, once and for all, who would hold out. Seventeen opted to strike–one of the highest numbers in the league. Still, five crossed the line.
“For the first time in my six years,” remarks Webster, one of the originals from 1974, “we had players that were divided.”
Enter the Replacements
Daley was given no alternative to playing. Texas was a ‘right to work’ state and Dallas owner Lamar Hunt confirmed his Tornado would play. NASL labor attorneys informed Seattle it must field a team or face forfeiture and fines.
“I spent almost every waking hour on the phone for days on end,” remembers Daley, “until I had 16 bodies to send to Dallas.”
Each of the coaches–Gabriel, Bobby Howe and Harry Redknapp–played in the 1-0 loss at Dallas. The rest of the squad gathered together at Hudson’s home, alternately watching the game on TV and shooting pool.
“I believe (the coaches) were all supportive of us,” says McAlister. “Jimmy Gabriel was very important to the players, and I believe supported the movement.”
However, when the replacements (guaranteed a month’s salary, incidentally) arrived at Renton Stadium the following week, they were met by some angry striking players. “The scabs they had pulled in showed for training,” remembers Webster, “and one or two of us had to be restrained from giving them a blasting.”
It didn’t end there. Training resumed for all players later that same week, following the strike.
“We had a practice match and while Al (Hudson) strutted his stuff showing everyone who was top player,” confessess Webster, “I had only one thing on my mind and that was to kick the arses of those scabs who thought they were going to come and take our places.”
In time, only one replacement player, veteran center back Ron Davies, earned a role for the remainder of the season.
Union leaders, in some cases, paid a heavy price. Sounders player rep Tony Chursky was arguably Seattle’s most popular player when he was traded to California in exchange for Surf rep Al Trost.
At the time Chursky was also trying to renegotiate his contract. But maintains McAlister, “Chursky was no doubt traded because of his union activities. He was a very strong and vocal leader in Seattle.” After Chursky organized California players to strike, he was shipped to Chicago a few weeks later.
While it first appeared the owners had won out, the NLRB ruling a few weeks later put teams on notice with threats of hefty fines for failing to meet with the union. For those playing for small-market clubs it translated to improvements. In Seattle, however, it resulted in cuts for the sake of conformity.
“When the union achieved their victory,” says Daley, “I immediately abided by the decision and implemented the directive for benefits as prescribed. That’s why the players lost their dental insurance and similar benefits provided by our club.”
At first glance it would appear the strike served to galvanize the Sounders. The defeat at Dallas was their third in a row to start the season. After returning to work, Seattle won six of the next seven.
Without a doubt, injuries and an aging roster contributed to a second-half swoon. So did the team’s attitude. Webster had once been close to Gabriel. Afterward, not so.
Did it Grease the Skids?
“While never surfacing, the atmosphere of the team did not regain the happy exuberance of previous years,” offers Daley. “That’s probably why we had our first losing season (13-17) in history.” Seattle’s attendance also fell 16 percent.
After failing to make the playoffs, Gabriel resigned. Redknapp returned to England. But the biggest move came at the top: the original owners group got out, selling to construction magnate Vince Coluccio.
Following the 1980 season, four NASL teams folded and three more were sold and moved. Perhaps it was unrelated the advent of unionization, but Daley contends the confrontation came too early in the NASL’s development. “This premature strike was the reason that failing franchises found it easier to fold than fight.”
Webster refuses to accept blame for the league’s ultimate demise in 1985. “It may have put teams under pressure that were already struggling,” he says, “but I don’t think there were any unreasonable demands.”
Today, Webster remains steadfast, stating that when others shrugged their shoulders, he and 16 Sounders rightly stood firm.
“I’m proud of those guys at our club that made a stand,” Webster says, “because they became the pioneers for the welfare of future players in the game.”