NEW YORK (AP) -- The NFL referees' union rejected the league's latest contract offer on Thursday, and replacement officials will work at least the opening weekend of the regular season.
The league said Tom Condon, head of the NFL Referees' Association, left a telephone message saying the union's board unanimously rejected the offer presented the previous day.
Condon also informed Jeff Pash, the league's lead negotiator, of the vote in a letter.
"We are disappointed but we are ready to go with our new officials," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.
Aiello said the league would publicly address issues involved in the dispute later in the day, including how long the replacements might be on the job.
But the decision by the four-member union board means the NFL will start its season Sunday with the first on-field labor dispute in the 12-year tenure of commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
The league upped its offer to the locked-out officials Wednesday, from a 40 percent raise in the first year of its contract to a 60 percent raise, and gave them 24 hours to respond.
Condon, the negotiator for the officials, conducted a conference call with the board -- Ed Hochuli, Bill Carollo, Jeff Bergman and Ben Montgomery.
Condon was unavailable for comment. He did not immediately return telephone messages left by The Associated Press.
Aside from the 60 percent increase, the rest of the package remains the same, with officials' salaries doubled by 2003.
Even the new offer was far below what the union has demanded -- the two sides are 50 to 75 percent apart in the salary package.
The officials, who are part-timers, are seeking close to the annual salary made by officials in the other three major team sports. The NFL counters that it pays more per game than any of the three -- its 16 game season is far shorter than the 80 to 162 games in the others.
Last week, the league locked out its officials, who have been without a contract since March. Tagliabue said the NFL didn't want to start the season without a contract, which would allow officials to walk off the field at any time.
Last week's final exhibitions were worked with replacements, most from college or the Arena League, and there were no major game-turning gaffes. But the league clearly was concerned that once the games counted, small mistakes would be magnified.
Talks resumed Tuesday and reconvened Wednesday morning, when the league put its new offer on the table. The meeting lasted just a half-hour, and Condon left for his home in Kansas City to consider it.
The replacement officials have been guaranteed four games at $2,000 per game.
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