NFL labor progress? Not necessarily

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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell arrives for a negotiating session. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

Over at profootballtalk.com, Mike Florio has reported that Tuesday was a "big day" in the ongoing NFL labor talks, which are being aided and abetted by a federal mediator. The union has said any talk of progress is "speculation." I don't know what's true.

But this needs to be emphasized:

The act of sitting with the mediator for several consecutive days is not, in and of itself, a sign that good things are happening, or that progress is being made.

Florio has a source for the "big day" business, and I respect that. But this is the part I disagree with, the assertion of his that "the two sides surely are making progress. As we’ve pointed out a time or two, they’re not sitting in the room doing Sudoku and eating pepperoni pizza."

My point is, they might very well be doing Soduku, or eating pepperoni pizza, or throwing knives at each other, or sitting in separate rooms while the mediator performs shuttle diplomacy -- but they cannot leave until the mediator dismisses them, or until the end of some time limit that was agreed upon beforehand; there has been reporting that this time limit was 7 days.

The reason is this: the unfair labor practice charge that the NFL filed recently with the NLRB, accusing the union -- I'm boiing this down -- of not taking bargaining seriously. As soon as that charge was made, the mediator stepped in. It is unclear if one side sought the mediation or if the mediator just imposed himself into the process, but the initial statement sounded as if the mediator jumped in. Both sides quickly agreed to let him get involved.

Why? Because to say no would have an effect on the unfair labor practice charge -- which is a key element of a potential management strategy to prevent the union from decertifying and/or for the NFL to declare an impasse in bargining and impose terms on the union. A lockout is fraught with problems for management, but if the NFL is able to declare an impasse and impose terms, it means that the onus would be on the union to go on strike -- and history suggests that football players won't stay together.

Anyway, now imagine you are management, and you have made this unfair labor practice charge against the union. There is no way you can abandon this mediation prematurely -- no way, or the union will throw it back in your face before the NLRB. For the same reason, the union can't leave, either. If they were to walk, the NFL would amend its unfair labor practice complaint before DeMaurice Smith got into his cab outside the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

They could be making minor progress on minor issues -- and it would behoove the union to do just that, as a way of making their case against impasse -- but the act of staying should not be read as a sign of true optimism. They're staying because they have no choice.

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