Baseball owners are willing to go a long way to claim a victory in the game's bitter labor dispute -- even to another sport.
The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the National Basketball Association yesterday, dismissing a union claim that the NBA's salary cap violates federal antitrust laws. The court said that antitrust laws do not apply in cases where a collective bargaining relationship exists, and baseball owners quickly seized on the decision as proof that Major League Baseball's antitrust exemption is not a significant factor in the sport's long-running labor war.
"The unanimous decision by the federal appeals court validates the owners' position that the special exemption is irrelevant to the current dispute," acting commissioner Bud Selig said. "It holds that the antitrust laws simply do not apply to a labor dispute. This should put an end to the notion, once and for all, that baseball's antitrust exemption is somehow to blame for the players' strike."
Selig released a statement that also called on the union to end its crusade to get the exemption lifted and resume negotiations toward a settlement that would end the 5 1/2 -month baseball strike.
Major League Baseball Players Association officials were not available for comment, but it seems unlikely that they will give up their attempt to persuade Congress to lift the exemption, which allows baseball to exist as a corporate monopoly.
Baseball owners are very protective of the exemption, since it allows them to control franchise movement and also has broad implications in the administration of baseball's minor-league affiliates.
The union also has filed a bad-faith bargaining complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, hoping to force the owners to lift the salary cap that was implemented unilaterally in December.
If the NLRB decides to issue a complaint, it could also seek an injunction to lift the salary cap until the case is decided. That would be a major victory for the union.
Union officials undoubtedly had hoped that pressure from the NLRB and Congress would force the owners to back away from their hard-line bargaining position, but the ruling yesterday may cause ownership to become even more entrenched.
The 2nd Circuit became the second appellate court to adopt the stance. After the NFL Players Association's failed 24-day strike in 1987, the union filed an antitrust suit. In 1989, the 8th U.S. Circuit in Minneapolis ruled in Powell vs. NFL that collective bargaining situations were exempt from antitrust law.
The union then decertified, and Freeman McNeil and other players filed an antitrust case as individuals. On July 10, 1992, a jury ruled the league's Plan B system violated antitrust laws, and the following Jan. 6 the sides agreed to a contract through the 1999 season that widened free agency.
If the MLBPA faces the same kind of judicial roadblock, the union may also have to consider decertification.