While much of the current union debate is focused on Wisconsin and the benefits afforded to public union members, private unions have by and large stayed out of the general discussion. This is a shame, considering that the current wreck unfolding in the National Football League, and threatening to possibly prevent this upcoming season, is due in large part to a private union taking advantage of government intervention.
The National Football Players Association (NFLPA) was formed in 1956 when players from the Green Bay Packers and the Cleveland Browns wanted to form a union. It was a voluntary association that focused on taking care of grievances raised by the players about minimum pay, equipment standards and loss of pay due to injuries.
There were some victories and some losses, as there are in any sort of bargaining process, but the NFLPA really started to make progress with the owners after the 1957 Supreme Court case of Radovich v. National Football League. Radovich ruled that the NFL could not be treated as a single entity, like Major League Baseball, but instead each team stood on its own, making them vulnerable to anti-trust law. That meant that the teams could be sued by the players if league-wide standards were enacted – such as salary caps – because that would mean collusion by competing entities.
To further increase their bargaining power, the NFLPA eventually petitioned and won government certification. This gave them a legal monopoly to bargain with the NFL on players' behalf.
Fast forward to today, where the current collective bargaining agreement between the NFLPA and the NFL has expired. Unable to reach a compromise to divvy up the the approximately $9 billion in annual profits that the sport generates, the NFLPA has decided to end discussions and instead decertify itself for the sole purpose of opening the NFL up to antitrust lawsuits.
With decertification almost inevitable, and the union no longer negotiating, it is likely that the owners will lock out the players and possibly force the cancellation of the next season unless new arrangements can be made.
To be fair, the owners themselves are not without guilt when it comes to government intervention and the current mess. They've enjoyed generous public funding when it comes to the construction of their multi-hundred-million-dollar stadiums – which they now claim cost too much to maintain and constitute a large portion of their grievance with the previous CBA. It was also the owners, not the NFLPA, who originally voted to opt out. But it was the union that forced a government-granted bargaining monopoly, and the union which is now decertifying itself so as to use the legal system against the owners.
So it's not just public unions that take advantage of government intervention, as the NFLPA shows. While people are focused on Wisconsin and the debate over public unions, they would do well to remember just how much private unions rely on government.