One Chip Off of the Table: NFL Remains Locked Out After 8th Circuit Ruling

On Friday, July 8, 2011, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit , vacated a District Court’s order granting an injunction to the lockout issued by NFL owners against players.

Much of the Eighth Circuit’s majority decision in Brady v. National Football League centered upon the Norris-LaGuardia Act.  Signed in 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act restricts the power of federal courts to issue injunctions in cases ‘involving or growing out of a labor dispute.'”

Largely in dispute in this matter between the NFL and the players, represented in name by New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady, was whether the current lockout of NFL players by team owners constitutes a “labor dispute” under the Norris-LaGuardia Act.  In relevant part, the Norris-LaGuardia Act defines “labor dispute” as follows:  [a labor dispute] “. . . includes any controversy concerning terms or conditions of employment. . .”  29 U.S.C. section 113 (c).

The players argued that the Norris-LaGuardia Act was inapplicable, since a labor union is not involved in the current dispute between players and the league.  The players were able to assert this argument due to the fact that the labor union which formerly represented NFL players, the NFLPA, decertified as a labor union on March 11, 2011.  This argument was upheld by the District Court in issuing the injunction.  The District Court found that the current lockout was not a “labor dispute,”  because a “labor dispute” can only exist between an employer and an union.

However, the league and the Eighth Circuit disagreed with this finding.  In its decision, the Eighth Circuit majority spent a significant amount of time evaluating the meaning of the word “includes” in the Norris-LaGuardia Act.  For non-legal scholars, this analysis would likely seem largely time-consuming and unnecessary.  However, legal scholars understand the importance of plain language and legislative history in determining the meaning and use of a word in a statute.

The Eighth Circuit’s ruling which ultimately kept players locked-out also relied upon precedent to recognize that under the Norris-LaGuardia Act, “labor dispute” does not require that the participating parties be an employer and a union.  In particular, the Eighth Circuit’s majority decision cited New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co, 303 U.S. 552 (1938) for the proposition that a “labor dispute” can exist even if the employee-side of the dispute is not represented by a labor union.

While this decision by the Eighth Circuit is unlikely to hamper current negotiations between the NFL and players in an effort to end the lockout and reach a new collective bargaining agreement,  it is a further disclaimer to players as to how to orchestrate their union when proceeding in future labor disputes with the league.

In previous entries, I have expressed my disfavor of the NFLPA’s early decertification during the course of this dispute.  Today’s ruling by the Eighth Circuit technically removes another chip from the player’s bargaining table, as the league has essentially been allowed for the time being to keep players locked out.  This result was obtained by the court system through which the non-union represented players sought antitrust relief.  This reflects the difficult battle that plaintiffs face when seeking relief to end a dispute with a league using antitrust remedies rather than bargaining power through a union.

Therefore, I maintain that in labor disputes between leagues and players, it is best for the union which represents players to stay its course and negotiate steadfastly with the league (even after the imposition of a lockout).  Only when a clear impasse arises, should a players union seek to decertify and pursue the course of antitrust relief.

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