Within hours of the NFL’s collective bargaining talks breaking down, the owners initiated their anticipated Plan B, locking out the players (on March 12). And it wasn’t long after the lockout was announced that TV sports commentators began criticizing both sides for having “given up too soon.”
They chided both the team owners and the NFLPA (National Football League Players Association) for abandoning negotiations after utilizing a FMCS (Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service) mediator for “only sixteen days.” Those sixteen days of mediation were alluded to in utter disbelief, as if common sense told us that sixteen days weren’t anywhere near long enough.
What these commentators didn’t seem to realize is that union-management disputes aren’t like diplomatic negotiations or congressional hearings. This wasn’t a summit meeting between North and South Korea, where, after sixteen days, they’re still arguing over the seating arrangements.
Union-management negotiations are a whole other deal. Because labor disputes are all about money (as with the NFL, where the two sides are at odds over the players’ share of total revenue), and tend to be brutally direct, there is very little foreplay — and virtually none of the pompous rhetoric and public grandstanding we’ve come to associate with politics and diplomacy.
Sixteen days with a federal mediator in the room? That’s an eternity. If NLFPA executive director DeMaurice Smith were candid, he’d likely tell us that fourteen of those days were a total waste of time.
During a strike I was involved in some years ago, we met with an FMCS mediator (an ex-Steelworker rep named John Courtney) a grand total of three times. The first meeting lasted four hours and it occurred two days before we shut down the facility; the second occurred a month later, and it lasted eight hours; and the third and final meeting occurred on the 56th day of the strike. We spent 22 consecutive hours at the table before reaching a tentative agreement.
With all due respect to Courtney and his boss, Sam Sachman (who joined us at 11:00 P.M. on the final night), mediation played a very small part in the process. Although the mediators put their hearts into it, neither side paid much attention to them. What ended the strike — what got the union to return to work after 57 days — was the same thing that ends most strikes: the combination of austerity, fatigue, despair and resignation.
As for the football dispute, it will be surprising if it continues beyond the next two or three weeks. For one thing, there’s simply too much money to be made (and lost) by both sides. After all, this is a battle between millionaires and billionaires. For another, April 28 is college draft day, and the closer they get to that date, the higher the sperm count. The NFL doesn’t want to see the draft come and go without a settlement.
On March 22, the League made a slight tactical blunder when Commissioner Roger Goodell ominously suggested that the owners’ last offer “may not be on the table” the next time the parties meet. Besides Goodell having no business posing as an objective third party (he clearly represents the owners, who hired him and can fire him), his remarks scared no one. All he did was antagonize the Players Association.
When management puts a good faith offer on the table, they’re not only announcing to the union that it’s an agreement they can live with, they are, in effect, exposing their hand. They’re showing the union exactly what they consider important, how much they’re willing to pay, how far they’re willing to move, and what they’re willing to give up.
And you don’t go backwards. Management can’t suddenly withdraw that offer and pretend it never existed simply because they’ve grown impatient. They can’t pretend that the union’s negotiating team hasn’t already etched the terms of that offer indelibly on their brains….not if they’re serious about reaching a settlement.
Roger Goodell’s pathetic threat only succeeded in further alienating the players; and given how sensitive these bargains can be, that’s the last thing he wanted to do. Some advice for the commissioner: Stick to your administrative tasks, and leave the negotiating to the negotiators.