The NFL Referees Association (NFLRA), the union which represents NFL game officials, has not been able to reach a collective bargaining agreement with NFL and as the 2012 season approaches, it is becoming more likely that replacement refs will be brought in for week one. The NFL has announced that in order to prevent disruptions to the season, training of replacement officials will begin this month. On Tuesday, the NFLRA filed an unfair labor practice charge against the NFL with the National Labor Relations Board for allegedly bypassing the NFLRA and trying to “undermine” support among members.

The previous agreement expired at the end of last season and negotiations have been going on since October. Sessions have been coordinated by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. As of early June, talks were suspended with no agreement reached. The NFL’s plan to bring in replacements may be an effective way to end the labor dispute to their advantage. In 2001, a dispute between the same two organizations resulted in a four week lockout.

What can we learn from the NFL/NFLRA dispute? Here are our key takeaways from this process:

  1. Consider the disruptions that your negotiations might cause. This particular negotiation has been going on since October. The mediators should have been keeping a better eye on the calendar. Since they didn’t, the NFL season may be disrupted. Set deadlines for your decisions to be made and stick to them.
  2. Avoid playing the zero-sum game. Unlike football, there doesn’t always need to be a winner and a loser in life. A win-win outcome should actually be the goal of a negotiation. The NFL obviously doesn’t want to agree to exorbitant pay hikes, but there is probably a compromise where both parties can get at least part of what they’re looking for.
  3. Use threats wisely and sparingly. The NFL is definitely playing hardball by bringing in replacement referees. Ultimatums and threats can certainly be effective, but oftentimes they lead to a short-term solution and don’t resolve deep-seeded, lingering problems. They may even breed resentment which will crop up the next time a negotiation is due.
  4. Consider what the other party brings to the table. While many vocal fans will claim that the NFL referees have made more than their share of poor calls, the reality is that NFLRA members are more qualified, more experienced, and better equipped than any stand-in officials will be. Many of them have fans themselves. The NFL shouldn’t be treating them as completely replaceable; most fans and players will tell you that they prefer professionals over amateurs.
  5. Try not to shut down talks. You don’t want to reach a point in the negotiation where both parties walk away from the table. If the issue is important enough, an outcome needs to be reached. There’s nothing wrong with going back to your respective corners to regroup, but shutting down talks completely causes unnecessary delays.

What strategies have you found effective in your professional negotiations? What advice would you offer to each side in the talks?

Meredith Taylor
Staff Associate
Kellen Company