Upshaw: If No Deal, No Union

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 2006

DETROIT, Feb. 2 -- NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw upped the stakes in the league's labor dispute Thursday, saying he will recommend to players next month that they begin the process of decertifying the union if no deal for an extension of the collective bargaining agreement is in place.

The tactic would be an attempt to prevent players from being locked out by owners, and could set the stage for an antitrust lawsuit by players if owners were to impose new work rules that the players didn't like.

The league's current labor deal keeps its salary-cap system in place through the 2006 season, then there would be a season without a salary cap in 2007 before the deal expires. Negotiations between the owners and players on an extension have been stalled.

"In '08, if we don't have a deal, knowing the way the NFL works, they will try to implement something," Upshaw said at a news conference. "We will cease to be a union. We will start that process quickly. In our opinion, we'll have to end up in antitrust court, and we like our chances there."

The new league year begins March 3, and the players are scheduled to have an executive board meeting six days later. If there's no labor deal before that meeting, Upshaw and other union leaders said, union leaders will recommend to players that they start the decertification process.

"That process will start on March 9, one way or another. . . . We're not going to be sitting there at the end of '06 not knowing what to do," Upshaw said. "We will make that decision very quickly. . . . It will be addressed with the players, and they will decide what course to take."

The union decertified in 1989, then was re-established as the players' bargaining agent in '93. The current labor deal contains a provision that players can, if they choose, decertify the union again without the owners legally contesting the move, according to Richard Berthelsen, the union's general counsel.

There have been reports of preliminary discussions among owners about the possibility of a lockout to try to spur negotiations. Players would take the decertification step to attempt to avoid a lockout, believing the courts would not allow players to be locked out after decertifying their union.

With the union in place, it would be possible for owners eventually to declare an impasse in negotiations and unilaterally implement a new system consistent with their latest bargaining proposal. Without a union, owners would be left to implement whatever system they wanted, but the players would have the option of filing an antitrust lawsuit if they objected to the new system.

Union leaders said that NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and owners have known throughout the negotiating process that decertification would be the players' likely response if the talks failed to produce a deal. Still, Thursday's comments by Upshaw marked a further escalation in what has been an unusually contentious set of negotiations for a league whose prosperity has, in part, been helped by labor accord.

With the revenues burgeoning because of a new set of national television contracts that will be worth about $4 billion per season, Upshaw has been seeking during these negotiations to expand the pool of revenue from which the players are paid under the salary-cap system. But he has been unable to agree with Tagliabue and owners on what percentage of the expanded revenue pool players should receive. Upshaw has been seeking 60 percent, and owners have been unwilling to offer that much.

Tagliabue, meantime, is trying to get owners to agree to a plan to increase the degree to which the wealthiest franchises would share their locally generated revenues with needier teams. The two sets of negotiations are taking place simultaneously, and Upshaw said the biggest holdup to deals on both fronts is that some owners of the most prosperous clubs are taking advantage of the current system. He said he does not include the Washington Redskins' Daniel Snyder in that category.

"You have to take Dan Snyder out," Upshaw said. "He's completely different. He's got a high-revenue club, and he spends money on his players. We like that. There are high-revenue clubs who are spending less than $66 million on their players, and that's out of $300 million. That's not a fair share."

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