The National Football League Players' Association, or NFLPA, is the labor union of players in football's National Football League. It was founded in 1956, but only achieved recognition and a collective bargaining agreement several years later. After a lost strike in 1987, the union was formally decertified, converting into a professional association in order to pursue antitrust litigation designed to win free agency for its members. When that tactic worked it reformed as a union and resumed collective bargaining with the league in 1993.
Formation and recognition
The union formed in 1956 when football players on the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns formed a union to demand that the clubs provide players with a minimum leaguewide salary and per diem pay, uniforms and equipment paid for and maintained at the clubs' expense and continued payment of their salaries while they were injured and unable to play. Don Shula of the Baltimore Colts, Frank Gifford of the New York Giants, and Norm Van Brocklin of the Los Angeles Rams led the organizing drive. After collecting authorization cards from a majority of the players, the association went to the owners' meeting to discuss their demands. The owners never met with them and never responded to any of their proposals.
Unable to win their attention by organizing, the association threatened to bring an antitrust lawsuit against the league. That threat became much more credible when the United States Supreme Court ruled in "Radovich v. National Football League", 352 U.S. 445 (http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=CASE&court=US&vol=352&page=445) (1957), that the NFL did not enjoy the same antitrust immunity that Major League Baseball did. Rather than face another lawsuit, the owners granted most of the players' demands, but did not enter into a collective bargaining agreement with the association or formally recognize it as their exclusive bargaining representative.
The players continued to use the threat of antitrust litigation over the next few years as a lever to win better benefits, including a pension and health insurance plan, and payment for exhibition games. The league did not formally recognize the NFLPA as the players' exclusive representative or enter into a contract with it, however, until 1968, after an abortive organizing drive by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and a short lockout and strike. That contract was a weak one, largely due to the fact that the union representing members of the former American Football League, which had just merged with the NFL, had accepted these terms.
Merger and progress
The NFLPA had chilly relations, at best, with its counterpart that represented AFL players. The NFLPA had attempted to block the merger of the two leagues in 1966, believing that the existence of a rival league gave individual players more bargaining power. After the two leagues merged, the two unions remained separate until 1970, when the AFL players, led by Jack Kemp of the Buffalo Bills, agreed to merge under the leadership of John Mackey of the Baltimore Colts. The employers continued, however, to treat the union lightly in negotiations, prompting the NFLPA to formally petition the National Labor Relations Board for union certification.
The newly merged union found itself in just as weak a position as it had been in before. While it won the right for players to bargain through their own agents with the clubs, improvements in pensions and impartial arbitration for injury grievances, it was unable to make much progress on its economic demands. The Association therefore returned to the tactic that it had used in the past: an antitrust lawsuit challenging the "Rozelle Rule", which barred players from moving to another team after their contracts expired.
While that litigation proved successful, the union found that making progress in bargaining was harder to achieve. It eliminated the Rozelle Rule in bargaining in 1977 and obtained improved benefits and grievance procedures, but had not achieved free agency or reached its goal of winning 55 percent of league revenues for players.
The 1987 strike and decertification
The NFLPA struck for a month in 1987. On this occasion, however, the league chose to present games with replacement players, mostly those who had been cut in preseason, and a few veterans who crossed the picket lines. The television networks showcased these games as if these hastily assemble teams were the same quality as the veterans who were out on strike. Faced with cracks in its members' support and the willingness of the networks to broadcast the games, the union voted to go back to work on October 15, 1987. It filed a new antitrust suit that same day.
The Court of Appeals ultimately rejected that suit on the ground that the labor exemption from antitrust liability protected the employers, even though the union was no longer party to a collective bargaining agreement that would have permitted the practices that the union was challenging. In response, the union formally disclaimed any interest in representing NFL players in collective bargaining and reformed itself as a professional organization in 1989. Having done that, the following year union members, led by Freeman McNeil of the New York Jets, brought a new antitrust action against the NFL challenging its free agency rules as an unlawful restraint of trade.
The players ultimately prevailed, after a jury trial on their claims, in that action. That verdict, the pendency of other antitrust cases and the threat of a class action filed by Reggie White, then with the Philadelphia Eagles, on behalf of all NFL players brought the parties back to the negotiating table. They finally agreed on a formula that abolished free agency in return for salary caps tied to a formula based on players' share of total league revenues.
Returning to collective bargaining
That settlement was presented to and approved by the judge who had heard the McNeil antitrust case in 1993. Once the agreement was approved the NFLPA reconstituted itself as a labor union and entered into a new collective bargaining agreement with the league. The NFLPA and the league have extended their 1993 agreement four times, most recently through the 2007 season; there is no salary cap in that last year. Negotiations are underway to extend it through 2011.
NFLPA history (http://www.nflpa.org/AboutUs/main.asp?subPage=History)