Justices uphold right of firms to act together Ruling gives NFL teams antitrust immunity in setting terms for union

June 21, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON SUN STAFF WRITER VITO STELLINO CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- In a decision that could lead to more strikes and lockouts, the Supreme Court yesterday gave management in professional sports and many other industries broad power to set wages and other benefits if bargaining breaks down.

The ruling, in a pro football case, could have its most visible impact on sports, where labor strife has intensified in recent years. But it reaches well beyond pro leagues: The decision defines law for private industries that employ four out of 10 U.S. workers.

The justices voted 8-1 to broaden the antitrust immunity of management, after contract talks with unions break down, to impose conditions on workers -- including the very conditions that unions rejected during negotiations.

The expected result is that workers and their unions will have little choice but to go on strike to try to force management to back down or return to the bargaining table. Management also may use lockouts to strengthen its stance.

If management does not negotiate "in good faith" before talks break down, workers and unions could still complain to the National Labor Relations Board. But while the NLRB can require changes in management-union relations, it cannot award damages.

The ruling affects any industry in which the management of more than one company -- or, in sports, of more than one team -- joins together to bargain with unions. That includes the entertainment industry, telecommunications, retail stores, hotels, transportation, construction and mining.

Together, those and other "multi-employer" bargaining industries employ 2.3 million workers -- 43 percent of the private industry work force.

James Quinn, an attorney for football players in an earlier antitrust case, said players still have the right to end their status as unionized workers, by "decertifying" the union. Then, as a trade group -- rather than a union -- they could file an antitrust lawsuit against team owners.

"That option hasn't been eliminated," Quinn said yesterday.

The National Football League has apparently put off any recurrence of its recent labor troubles. It has agreed to extend its 1993 contract through 2000, with options of two more years beyond that.

Gene Upshaw, executive director of the union, the NFL Players Association, said that while disagreeing with yesterday's decision, the union did not think it would affect "the very bright future" of the players.

Paul Tagliabue, the NFL commissioner, said the ruling leaves salaries and other terms to bargaining, not in "counterproductive and wasteful" antitrust lawsuits.

Mike Brown, the Cincinnati Bengals' owner, said the decision "will bring some semblance of order as to when an antitrust suit can be filed. We were in an impossible situation. It isn't as though the players don't have enough leverage."

The ruling could have consequences in nearly every sport except baseball. Since 1922, baseball alone has had complete immunity to antitrust laws, and nothing in the new ruling changes that.

The court condemned the use of antitrust courts to second-guess labor dealings. In doing so, it rebuffed efforts by NFL players to use an antitrust lawsuit to attack salary terms that owners devised together and put in effect after bargaining stalled.

A similar effort in the National Basketball Association has been pending in the court. The justices are expected to act on that case next week, probably applying yesterday's ruling.

The ruling appears to have no effect on possible antitrust lawsuits against team owners when they try to block a team from moving to a new city. The ruling dealt only with antitrust in labor bargaining, not team location.

Art Modell, who moved his NFL team from Cleveland to Baltimore, to become the Ravens, was vacationing in Europe yesterday and not available for comment.

The case that led to the new ruling began after the 1987 league-player contract expired, and talks over a new one began. One issue was the owners' proposal to set a flat salary of $1,000 a week for players on teams' "taxi," or practice, squads. Up to then, individual players could negotiate salaries.

The union agreed to let players be assigned to taxi squads, but only if they could negotiate individually over salary. Negotiations broke down, so the NFL owners imposed the $1,000 salary clause in each taxi squad player's contract.

Nine squad players sued the NFL and all 28 clubs, on behalf of 235 players, in an antitrust lawsuit. A jury found an antitrust violation and awarded the players $10.1 million in damages -- thereafter tripled, as antitrust law permits, to $30.3 million.

A federal appeals court here threw out that verdict last year, saying that antitrust laws cannot be used to second-guess collective bargaining in industries -- and sports leagues -- that use multi-employer bargaining.

Pub Date: 6/21/96

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