ORG Blog

When Push at the Bargaining Table Comes to Shove on the Playing Field

After 3 ½ months the NFL League’s lockout of the NFLRA represented referees appears to be over.  In retrospect you have to ask yourself, “Was that trip really necessary?”  Did the solutions that the new contract contains represent nearly 17 weeks of concentrated problem solving?  Does the result represent a significant benefit to the League, the Referees, the owners, the fans and the players?

Perhaps most importantly, one should ask, “Were these issues truly best resolved at the bargaining table?”  Remember that bargaining of this type assumes that the two parties are unable to find a mutually beneficial resolution and instead have chosen to resort to arm wrestling by committee to reach a decision.

Not every issue is best resolved by tug of war activity.  In our experience parties willing to do the work can reach mutually beneficial solutions to most of their issues.  Though apparently not popular in political circles of late, collaboration is alive and well in workplaces where management and union leaders commit to starting the discussion by each stating their interests rather than their demands.

Unfortunately in this case the union and the league chose the more combative route though neither side had enough leverage to force the other to resolve the issue.  History teaches us that resolution of disputes by combative means rarely occurs until the collateral damages are sufficient to create substantial leverage.

“Collateral damage” in the world of lockouts and strikes normally translates to people and organizations getting hurt (families burning through savings and having to manage without normal medical coverage until a ratified agreement is reached, corporations permanently losing customers to the competition, etc.)  Fortunately in this case an agreement appears to have been reached before the NFL suffered the kind of enormous loss of fan support that major league baseball’s player strike wrought.  A loss from which many would say MLB has never fully recovered.

That does not mean the NFL escaped damage free.  At the very least the league has acquired a black eye in the minds of many.  Black eyes are not fatal.  However, damages to the bodies of individual players are.  Each week as we watched there was growing evidence that the game was too poorly officiated to contain its normal arc towards becoming increasingly physical - all this in a year in which the league and its players are already in litigation over the physical damage previously suffered by NFL Alumni.

Some years ago, the NFL showed the leadership required to reach a difficult and important salary cap decision - a gutsy decision that has enabled the league to have exciting competitive teams in a variety of communities around the country, not just giant metro areas.

By contrast major league baseball’s inability to collaboratively reach a similar plan continues to feed a ridiculously uneven fielding of teams that has relegated professional baseball to truly being a “pastime”, while professional football has become increasingly popular, robbing baseball of its once undeniably loyal fan base.

Let’s hope that in the aftermath of this dispute the league and its unions decide to apply the same kind of collaborative problem solving creativity to their future negotiations that has made them such a premier professional sport in this country.

Robert Hughes

Topics: Collaboration Labor Management Leadership