What does decertification of the players union really mean?

I’ve been hearing the word a lot lately— decertification — as a potential weapon to be used by a union in a labor dispute. But without a real union background, I had no idea what the word really meant — especially in the context of NFL football.

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The short answer: Decertification would mean the union no longer exists, and it almost certainly would lead to a court fight.

According to the latest NFL News Feed from Mark Maske (as of March 3, 2011, 12 noon), NFL players are poised to decertify their union today (March 3rd)—  and immediately seek an injunction in court that would block a potential lockout beginning Friday by the league’s franchise owners.

Decertification would be a legal move by the players to prevent a lockout. Players would give up their rights to collectively bargain, but they could individually file antitrust claims against the NFL and the owners. It’s a lengthy process in which the players would claim the league is restricting trade. If the players were successful, the league could lose some of its antitrust protection; as long as there is a players union, the league is protected from such antitrust actions.

So, to decertify a union would mean the union members have voted “yes” on the question of disbanding the union; I’m assuming a majority vote is needed to carry the motion. According to Barry Wilner of ESPN, the NFLPA has already received approval from its members to decertify —voting results from a series of meetings with each of the 32 teams that began last summer.

According to the union, the primary reason to decertify is to save the 2011 season.

This has happened before… In 1989, the union decertified— and a subsequent settlement with the NFL in 1993 led to free agency and the reforming of the NFLPA.

The union must decertify before the CBA expires at the end of the day Thursday (today, March 3), or jurisdiction for labor issues no longer will be handled by U.S. District Court Judge David Doty in Minneapolis.  Judge Doty has already made one favorable ruling on behalf of the players (the potential freezing of network TV money to be paid to the owners even if there is no season)…so the players probably ought to keep the ball in Judge Doty’s court.

What does Eagles Eye want to see happen now?
All the legal maneuvers described above are necessary to protect the players from a worst-case scenario: no football and no money in 2011. Some legal experts have said a lockout after decertification could be risky for the owners because the lockout could be cited in antitrust litigation under those circumstances, with potential damages at stake. But other experts have said shutting down the NFL after decertification wouldn’t be a lockout at that point, and might be the least risky thing the owners could do at that point.

The players apparently plan to seek a court injunction blocking a lockout when they decertify the union.  What I think I’m seeing now sets the stage for a legal impasse…and a let’s-get-real moment of opportunity for both sides to agree to extend the deadline for the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement. The current labor deal between the owners and players runs through 11:59 p.m. tonight (Thursday, March 3).

Since a settlement on the big issues ( 60-40 revenue split for players, 18-game season, rookie wage scale, post-career medical insurance, etc.) is still very far away, I’d like to see a last-minute agreement by both sides to postpone the March 4th bargaining deadline, and extend negotiations out until at least the completion of the NFL Draft (now about 56 days away at this writing).

Of course, if the players union actually does decertify itself today (March 3rd), that will put the union out of business as the bargaining agent for the players— and enable them to file individual or class-action antitrust litigation against the owners. That would happen in Judge Doty’s court, a traditionally favorable environment for the players. I think Judge Doty would grant an injunction to the players against any further lockout or work stoppage by the owners until a reasonable extension of time is given to reach a settlement and a new bargaining agreement in principle.

That’s the best thing I can see happening out of all this as the clock keeps ticking toward midnight…an injunction in favor of the players, and a wake-up call to both sides to get a deal done.

I hope both sides hear the call…because more and more around town I’m hearing everyday fans mutter the same words: “a pox on both their houses…”

Thomas Jackson

About Thomas Jackson

Jax Sports Media has been reporting on NFL teams in the mid-Atlantic region since 2006. Thomas Jackson is its senior writer. Tom started covering the Philadelphia Eagles for the MVN Network in 2007. In 2009 he joined the Bloguin Network. He now also covers the Baltimore Ravens.

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