NFL, union agree to federal mediation
By Mark Maske
UPDATED (7:33 p.m.)...
The NFL and its players' union have agreed to federal mediation as a possible means of settling their labor dispute.
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service announced Thursday that the league and union had agreed to allow the agency to be involved in the negotiations.
The two sides are scheduled to meet Friday in D.C. with George H. Cohen, the agency's director.
"I have had separate, informal discussions with the key representatives of the National Football League and the National Football League Players Association during the course of their negotiations for a successor collective bargaining agreement," Cohen said in a written statement. "At the invitation of the FMCS, and with the agreement of both parties, the ongoing negotiations will now be conducted under my auspices in Washington, D.C., commencing Friday, February 18.
"Due to the extreme sensitivity of these negotiations and consistent with the FMCS's long-standing practice, the Agency will refrain from any public comment concerning the future schedule and/or the status of those negotiations until further notice."
An NFL spokesman confirmed the agreement to participate in mediation but declined further comment.
The union issued a written statement that said: "The NFL Players Association has always focused on reaching a fair collective bargaining agreement through negotiations. We hope that this renewed effort, through mediation, will help the players and owners reach a successful deal."
The current labor deal between the sport's franchise owners and the union expires March 4. Players and union officials have said they expect the owners to lock out the players at that point if there's no agreement on a new deal first.
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is a federal agency created in 1947 to promote cooperative labor resolutions. Cohen was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as director of the FMCS in October 2009.
Cohen will attempt to help negotiators for the league and the union reach a settlement. But the two sides' participation in the mediation is voluntary.
"This is not binding on the parties," said Seth H. Borden, a New York-based labor attorney not involved in the football negotiations. "The role of the mediator is to try to find common ground and narrow the areas of dispute between them. He's going to be working with what he has to work with. At the end of the day, if one party or the other feels it's not productive, they can withdraw from the process."
Participants in the NFL negotiations have said the 11:59 p.m. deadline March 3 for a new deal could be pushed back if there is progress toward an agreement being made at that point. Borden said it will be clear whether the mediation is having an effect by that point. If the deadline is postponed, he said, it's a likely signal that the parties believe a settlement might be within reach.
"Time is short," said Borden, a partner at the firm McKenna Long & Aldridge. "That's the operative issue. You'll see quickly whether time is going to remain short.... By all accounts, the level of trust in the relationship is not there. It's possible that someone from the outside can be just what's needed here. On the other hand, it might be too much to ask for him to work through this if there's not that level of trust."
One source said the league and union agreed to daily negotiating meetings over the next week. That bargaining schedule was first reported by the Web site profootballtalk. The league and union refused to comment on the scheduling of bargaining sessions.
Negotiations broke off last week with the league and union unable to make progress toward a compromise on the central economic issue of the dispute: how much of the league's revenues would go to the players under a salary cap system.
The mediator's task appears considerable. The league this week filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the union of failing to bargain in good faith. The league's charge to the NLRB accuses the union of planning for the players to decertify the union and file antitrust litigation against the owners once the current labor deal expires. The union denied the allegations in the league's charge to the NLRB, which is being investigated.
The union previously filed separate cases with the sport's special master accusing the league of improperly structuring its national television contracts to provide the owners with what amounts to a lockout fund, and alleging that teams colluded last offseason to improperly restrict players' salaries. The special master, University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephen Burbank, awarded the union some damages in the TV case. But those damages were only a fraction of what the union was seeking, and Burbank refused to bar the league from receiving TV payments next season if there's a work stoppage. The union is appealing Burbank's decision. The collusion case is pending.
Union officials conducted a conference call with players Thursday. One source said the primary topic was health insurance issues.
The league rescheduled an owners' meeting that was to be held March 3 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The meeting now is to be held March 2 in the Washington area, at a hotel near Dulles Airport.
February 17, 2011; 3:19 PM ET
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