Players vs. owners: Who came out on top in major labor disputes?

Publish date:

Well, that certainly was fun.

After more than four months, the longest work stoppage in National Football League history ended Monday when the players unanimously accepted a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement approved earlier by the NFL owners. Pro football is back, and only one exhibition game was lost, giving football fans some semblance of normalcy once the demolition derby-like free agent signing period is complete.

As in most professional sports labor disagreements, there is usually a winner and a loser when the dust clears. Here is a player vs. owner labor scorecard in the four major professional sports, with the NBA's current lockout still pending a resolution.

2011: A happy ending

Future generations of football fans might wonder what all this fuss was about. The league is a $9 billion business, the most profitable sports enterprise in U.S. history, yet the owners who triggered the lockout on March 11 thought they weren't getting their fair share of the massive revenues. There were no spring minicamps and summer training camps were delayed but, in the end, all the NFL lost was the Hall of Fame exhibition game in Canton, Ohio.

Unlike in 1987, where there was enough bitterness at the end of that work stoppage to fill a stadium, the 10-year deal of 2011 seemed to satisfy players and owners alike. Players took turns applauding the contributions of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft while NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association head DeMaurice Smith embraced for photographers.

Winner: Going by revenues, the owners came out ahead. They will receive 52 to 53 percent of revenues instead of the 47 percent in the previous CBA. And the new salary structure reduces the amount of money that can be paid to first-round draft choices.

But it's difficult to view the players as losers. There is unrestricted free agency after four seasons, no more two-a-day workouts in pads and fewer OTAs (organized team activities) in the offseason. Smith proved a worthy representative for the players' needs in his first major bargaining session.

1989-1993: Freeman McNeil and Reggie White cases.

The players decertified as the National Football League Players Association and then reorganized as a professional organization in 1989. The purpose: to pursue antitrust litigation that would lead to free agency. Led by Jets running back Freeman McNeil, the players brought a new antitrust case against the NFL. They argued that the lack of legitimate free agency was an unlawful restraint of trade.

A jury trial went in favor of the players. A few years later the threat of a class-action suit brought by Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Reggie White returned the parties to the negotiating table. Finally, NFL owners gave the players free agency in return for a salary cap.

Winner: A series of big wins for the players; also a win for fans as union President Gene Upshaw and Commissioner Paul Tagliabue oversaw an era of labor piece.

1987: Not again

Five years after the NFL's first prolonged walkout, the owners and players were back at it. Players demanded free agency, and a strike was called after the Week 2 games. This time the owners were not going to wait for a settlement as they had in 1982. After a week with no games, they authorized the signing of replacement players and started play again. Even though the quality of football was far from big league, the networks televised all replacement games.

The NFLPA was caught off guard, having failed to set up a strike fund to replenish lost wages. Nearly 90 players crossed the picket line, including big-name stars Joe Montana, Lawrence Taylor, Randy White and Steve Largent. After three weeks of replacement games, all the players returned to work.

But the second strike of the decade tore another pound of flesh out of Commissioner Pete Rozelle who would leave his job in 1989 after nearly three decades of visionary leadership.

Winner: Huge victory for the owners, particularly Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm who had pushed hard for replacement games. But despite not winning free agency the union had learned a lesson.

1982: The longest strike

Nearly half the season was lost as the players sought 55 percent of the league's gross revenues to make up for no free agency. There were no games between Sept. 21 and Nov. 16, and the 57-day strike is the lengthiest in NFL history. By time a new contract was signed, the schedule had been slashed to nine games.

Winner: Owners. Longtime NFLPA Executive Director Ed Garvey looked like he was in over his head. He was replaced a year later by Gene Upshaw. Owners, however, did agree to a benefits package worth $1.28 billion for 1983-87 and were forced, for the first time, to open their books after players won a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board.

1974: Summer storm

The players staged a 42-day walkout during training camp, mostly over the issue of guaranteed contracts, but the strike fizzled when defectors begin crossing the picket line.

However, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney earned the lasting loyalty of his players by tossing them six packs of beer as they walked a picket line outside the team's training facility. Who knows if it was the beer but the Steelers won the next two Super Bowls.

Winner: An easy win for the owners, at least at the start. But the NFLPA, led by the late John Mackey, went to court and, in 1977, owners were found guilty of violating federal and antitrust laws. Benefits were increased and impartial arbitration of player grievances was implemented.

1968, 1970: That was quick.

Though hardly remembered, there was a brief lockout in 1968 (11 days) and an even shorter players' strike in 1970 (four days), both in the summer.

Winner: Mixed. The players, under the leadership of Detroit Lions guard John Gordy, finally won a collective bargaining agreement in 1968. Two years later players won the right to use agents to negotiate contracts and also gained improvements in salaries, pensions and dental care. John Mackey was chosen as president of the new players union but his fierce advocacy for players' rights earned the lasting enmity of NFL traditionalists. For years he was kept out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite his record as one of football's greatest tight ends.

1956-57: In the beginning

The names are familiar: Don Shula, Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote and Norm Van Brocklin. But in 1956-57 they weren't only playing football. They were trying to secure such basic rights as a minimum leaguewide salary, per diem pay, getting uniforms and equipment maintained at the teams' rather than players' expense and being paid while injured. Players from every NFL team but the Chicago Bears joined the first NFL Players Association. The Bears were owned by George Halas, a bitter players' union foe.

Organizing didn't do the trick, so lawyer and former Notre Dame player Creighton Miller threatened an antitrust suit against the NFL. Because the league didn't enjoy the same antitrust exemption as Major League Baseball, the owners granted most of the players' demands including minimal insurance and pension plans.

Winner: The players even though the league did not formally recognize the players association.

Major League Baseball, seemingly, has been fighting labor battles since its origins in the 1870s. Here are some highlights.

1994-95: The big one

After tremors briefly interrupted the baseball seasons of 1985 and 1990, a magnitude 9 earthquake shook the game to its foundations in 1994-95.

Once again owners sought financial relief from players in the form of a salary cap and the elimination of salary arbitration. Players walked out on Aug. 12, 1994. There would be no last-minute agreement and the rest of the baseball season was canceled. There was no World Series for the first time since 1904.

The strike carried over to the next year, threatening the '95 season. The owners planned on using replacement players.

The players appealed to the courts where future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a preliminary injunction against the owners on March 31, 1995. A panel from the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld Sotomayor's decision, and on April 2, the 232-day strike finally was over.

Winner: The players had prevailed� again� but baseball had suffered a terrible blow. Attendance dropped from 31,000 per game before the strike to 25,000 afterward. Players and union chief Donald Fehr were jeered at games. Although Cal Ripken's consecutive game record later that season often is credited with "saving baseball,'' attendance didn't bounce back until the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase of 1998.

Baseball, however, had learned a lesson. There has been no talk of lockouts or strikes this century.

1981: The split season

Players walked out on June 12, 1981, over the owners' attempts to win back ground that had been lost in arbitration.

At issue was compensation for free agents. The owners believed a team that had lost a player to free agency should be able to "draft" a player from his new team that was not among 12 "protected" names on the roster. The players argued that any form of compensation would undermine free agency.

The matter was settled on July 31 when a compromise allowed teams who had lost a player to choose another player from a pool of all unprotected players, rather than just the signing team.

Baseball returned in August with the leaders of the first half of the season declared "division winners." The "winners" of the second half would then play the first half winners in the first divisional playoff round.

This left the Cincinnati Reds, whose 66 wins over the full season were the best in baseball, on the sidelines when the playoffs began. The Reds never forgave Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and were happy to join the move to replace him in 1984 with Peter Ueberroth.

Winner: A small win for the owners who gained a bit of ground in compensation for free agents.

1975: Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally

Catfish Hunter's case had opened the door to free agency. Pitchers Andy Messersmith of the L.A. Dodgers and Dave McNally of the Baltimore Orioles busted it wide open. Messersmith, on the advice of union leader Marvin Miller, played the '75 season without a contract. McNally, although unofficially retired, did the same.

The players union then argued that because there were no contracts, both players should be declared free agents. On Dec. 23, 1975, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of the players, striking down the ancient reserve clause that had bound players to one team in perpetuity. Messersmith and McNally were free agents, and a new era had come for Major League Baseball.

Winner: Perhaps the biggest victory ever for the players.

1974: Catfish Hunter

When Oakland A's owner Charlie Finely missed the date of a contract payment to star pitcher Catfish Hunter, it allowed Hunter and Marvin Miller to argue that the contract was null and void. An arbitrator agreed with Hunter, making him baseball's first official free agent.

Winner: Huge win for the players as Hunter signed a five-year contract with the New York Yankees, averaging $750,000 per season.

1972: The first strike

For the first time every major league ballplayer was on strike in a battle over salary and pension issues. They continued their strike into the start of the regular season and nearly 90 games were lost. The owners ultimately capitulated.

Winner: The players, of course, particularly a little-noticed concession that gave them the right to arbitration.

1970-72: Curt Flood

Rather than accept a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies, the erudite Flood challenged baseball's reserve clause and sued in federal court for antitrust violations. Flood v. Kuhn reached the Supreme Court in 1972 where the justices ruled in favor of Major League Baseball despite misgivings about the sport's longtime antitrust exemption.

Winner: At first the owners but eventually the players. Baseball's reserve clause ultimately was doomed and Flood has been honored as a prophet before his time.

1946: The Mexican League

Long before Eastbound and Down's Kenny Powers took his talents south of the border, outfielder Danny Gardella refused a contract from the New York Giants and accepted a more lucrative offer from the new Mexican League.

The league quickly folded. Gardella and other major leaguers who had signed Mexican contracts, including Mickey Owen, Max Lanier and Fred Martin, originally were banned from playing Major League Baseball for five years.

Gardella sued. The owners ripped him in the press, led by Branch Rickey who said Gardella's views on labor showed "communistic tendencies," fighting words at the outset of the Cold War.

Winner: Mixed. Gardella accepted a lucrative financial settlement but played only one more major league game� in 1950. He and the other Mexican signees had lost valuable years of their careers.

1890: The Players League

Formed as a cooperative, the league featured profit-sharing and no reserve clause. When more than 80 National League and nearly 30 American Association players (including future Hall of Famers Dan Brouthers, John Clarkson, Tim Keefe and "King" Kelly) jumped to the new league the old leagues were stymied.

Failing to win in the courts, the richer National League and American Association won with the checkbook, offering better contracts to their former players and agreeing to merge some of the Players League teams into the older leagues.

Winner: The owners, barely. The Players League lasted only one season but ballplayers enjoyed a brief uptick in salaries.

1998-99: Big trouble

For decades, the NBA prided itself on never losing a game to labor strife. That legacy crashed when a lockout cost the league nearly half of its 1998-99 schedule.

The NBA claimed 15 of its 29 teams were losing money. The players union said it was more like four. When the NBA went dark, the Washington Post's Tony Kornheiser called it "a dispute between tall millionaires and short millionaires."

After Commissioner David Stern threatened to cancel the entire season, the players relented and a cap on maximum player salaries was instituted. The games went on after a 204-day lockout.

Winner: Finally, a victory for the short millionaires although, perhaps, not in the long run. Stern had the cost controls he desired, plus longer rookie contracts, designed to keep talented young players in one city for more seasons. There also was a rookie pay scale, based on where a player was drafted. Players received increases in minimum salaries for veterans and some additional exceptions to the salary cap. But some of the same owners who applauded the '99 deal are now demanding more givebacks from the players.

1995: Players break ranks.

When the owners instituted a lockout after the 1995 NBA Finals, the start of the next season appeared at risk. But secret negotiations between Stern and his assistant Russ Granik with players' union president Buck Williams and union executive director Simon Gourdine ended the lockout after 80 days.

Not every player was happy. Some of the high-priced superstars led by Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing forced some changes, including dropping a luxury tax. But Ewing and Jordan went too far in their effort to decertify the union and seek more radical changes such as abolishing the draft. The move to decertify was defeated by the players in a 226-134 vote.

Jordan quickly moved on. His Chicago Bulls registered a record 72-win season.

Winner: Players, but only slightly. They received unrestricted free agency and retained the Larry Bird exemption, which allowed teams to sign veterans to higher salaries. But players no longer were as united as in the Oscar Robertson days.

1970s: The Oscar Robertson Suit

Named for their union leader, this action barred a merger with the smaller American Basketball Association as an illegal barrier to better salaries. As long as there was an ABA, NBA players could demand top dollar.

The suit was settled when players were given an increase in benefits, boosts in minimum salary, medical benefits and per diem money, plus increased player shares from the playoffs and All-Star Game. Four of the ABA teams merged with the NBA in 1976 but players were allowed to negotiate with more than one team.

Winner: The players again.

1964: All-Star brinkmanship

The lack of a pension agreement and a desire for union recognition caused the best players in the game, including Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, to threaten a strike hours before the start of the 1964 All-Star Game at Boston Garden.

This was one of the few occasions when the NBA would receive national television exposure in the early '60s, and league President Walter Kennedy didn't want a nationwide embarrassment. He personally guaranteed the players that a pension plan would be discussed at the next owners' meeting. The players agreed to take the floor minutes before tipoff, and Kennedy ultimately persuaded NBA owners to approve a pension plan.

Winner: Huge win for the players. They got their pension and the union was formed a short time afterward.

2004-05: No hockey

Starting on Sept. 15, 2004, and continuing until the following July, this 310-day lockout is the longest in U.S. sports history and resulted in the cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season, the only full season lost to labor issues.

The owners, saying they had lost $300 million in the 2002-03 season, demanded a hard salary cap.

Players head negotiator Bob Goodenow eventually lost the support of the union, and a settlement with the owners was reached by union president Trevor Linden and senior director Ted Saskin.

Winner: The owners by a mile. A hard salary cap was instituted as well as a 24 percent rollback in salaries. Players, however, were granted free agency after seven seasons. Because there was no season, a lottery was used to determine the order in the draft. The Pittsburgh Penguins won and selected Sidney Crosby who would lead them to the 2009 Stanley Cup.

1994-95: A short season

The NHL's first major labor battle developed after the players were locked out in summer 1994. The big issues were a salary cap and the length of the regular season. A settlement didn't come until early 1995 and the 48-game season was the NHL's shortest since World War II.

Winner: The players. A salary cap for veterans was avoided although one was instituted for rookies. The season was trimmed from 84 to 82 games.

1992: A short strike

A 10-day strike by the NHL players resulted in larger playoff shares, improved free agency and increased control of licensing agreements.

Winner: The players in a landslide. Even though league President John Ziegler did yeoman's work in reaching a settlement, he was sacked and replaced by Gil Stein who in turn was replaced by Gary Bettman, the current commissioner.

1957: Ted Lindsay vs. NHL

One of the most beloved and respected players in NHL history, Lindsay and Montreal's Doug Harvey led an attempt to form the first NHL players association. For his troubles, the Detroit Red Wings stripped Lindsay of his captaincy and traded him to the last-place Chicago Blackhawks. Detroit general manager Jack Adams told reporters Lindsay was making $25,000, a huge salary in the 1950s. His actual pay was $13,000.

Superstar Gordie Howe, who was well-paid by Adams, drew criticism for appearing to side with Red Wings management and not backing Lindsay, a decision Howe later would come to regret. Other association advocates also were penalized, including Hall of Famer Harvey, who eventually was sent to the lowly New York Rangers.

Winner: Owners. Lindsay, however, brought an antitrust lawsuit against the NHL that threatened to expose league ties to the notorious Norris syndicate, which operated many NHL arenas. The NHL eventually agreed to most of the players' demands regarding pension payments although a players union didn't come about until 1967.

1925: The Tigers' final roar

The Hamilton Tigers had the NHL's best record in 1925 and were favored to win their first Stanley Cup. They never even reached the playoffs. Angered that their salaries had not been increased when the schedule was expanded from 24 to 30 games, the Tigers players asked for a $200 bonus per man. When NHL President Frank Calder said no the Tigers decided to sit out the postseason.

The Montreal Canadiens ended up playing the Victoria Cougars of the Western Canada Hockey League for the Stanley Cup. Victoria became the last non-NHL to win the Cup, and the Tigers ultimately were sold to mobster Bill Dwyer who moved the team to New York and renamed them the Americans.

Winner: The players. Fortified by bootlegging money, Dwyer paid big salaries to Hamilton stars Billy Burch and Shorty Green, although all the Americans had to apologize to the league before they could play again. The Americans never reached a Stanley Cup final and folded in 1942.