With all the rhetoric emanating from each side of the NHL’s labor dispute, we’ve decided to bring in an actual lawyer to answer a series of questions. Hopefully it will prove useful to you, the reader, because it’s costing us $500 an hour. Please welcome to ProHockeyTalk, sports legal analyst Eric Macramalla.
PHT: Hello again, Eric. We’ve heard about unions voting to decertify in past pro sports labor stoppages. First off, what is that? Why do unions do it? And would the NHLPA every try it to end the lockout?
EM: Facing a lockout in 2011, the NFL Union disclaimed interest. After being locked out, NBA players voted to decertify the Union.
While the terms are different, decertification and disclaiming interest look the same at the end of the day: the Union has been dissolved or blown up. (Decertification refers to employees revoking the authority of their Union to bargain on their behalf, while disclaiming interest refers to the Union terminating its right to represent the players.)
Why are Unions dissolved this way? It’s done so players can file antitrust lawsuits against a league with a view to blocking a lockout, while ultimately looking to gain leverage in labor negotiations.
That begs the question: will the NHLPA and Donald Fehr ever dissolve or blow up the Union?
First things first though – let’s address this antitrust nonsense.
Here are the basics. It is unlawful for competitors to get together and fix the marketplace. When they do so, they open themselves up to antitrust claims. So fast food joints can’t all agree that they will start charging $50 for a hamburger. Back in the 1880s, the U.S. Federal Government wanted to ensure healthy competition and didn’t want to see competitors fixing the marketplace. That was the beginning of antitrust laws in the U.S.
This also applies to sports leagues. By way of example, the NHL has 30 teams that are competitors. However, while they are competitors, they still get together and impose restrictions on the marketplace by way of the terms in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The CBA provides for a salary cap, places limits on free agency and restricts the number of players a team can employ. Teams even share revenues.
Setting up these rules makes sense. A sports league is unique in that it requires a great deal of cooperation among teams to be successful.
So why are leagues generally able to avoid antitrust lawsuits? It’s because these unlawful restrictions are found inside the CBA. Think of the CBA as a protective bubble. While certain terms may be unlawful, by putting them inside the four corners of the CBA, leagues are insulated from these types of antitrust claims. It makes some sense, since a CBA represents an agreement between the employer and its employees. So the CBA rules the day.
That’s where decertification (or disclaiming interest) comes in. Decertification is the pin that bursts the CBA protective bubble. By dissolving a Union, the CBA is no longer able to protect a league against antitrust lawsuits.
Things, though, changed in 2011 when the NFL Union was dissolved and the players filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league to block the lockout. The Court of Appeal ruled that despite the Union dissolving itself, the CBA still protected the NFL from the antitrust lawsuit. That was a game changer for leagues.
As a result, antitrust litigation and decertification has become a far less effective tool for players in CBA negotiations. That means it’s highly unlikely that NHL players will decertify the Union. So don’t expect to see it.
Indeed, the message that has been sent by the Court of Appeal is that deals are hammered out at the bargaining table and not in the courtroom.
Eric Macramalla is a partner at a national law firm and TSN’s sports legal analyst. He has covered the legal side of all major sports stories, including the NFL and NBA lockouts, the Saints Bountygate, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens perjury trials, the Ilya Kovalchuk dispute and the Jerry Sandusky case. You can follow him on Twitter at@EricOnSportsLaw and his sports law blog is located at www.OffsideSportsLaw.com.