Labor relations in professional sports are notoriously contentious. Nobody gets along. Players strike, owners lock out players, referees strike, owners lock out referees; it happens all the time. Labor disputes in professional sports almost always revolve around the periodic renewal of collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) – contracts between leagues and unionized employees that specify all the details of the employer-employee relationship – that usually last five years or so.
The latest chapter in this sad saga pits the NBA against referees. Negotiations between the NBA and the National Basketball Referees association (NBRA), the union that represents NBA referees, broke down last week and appear to be stalled. The points of contention are the usual suspects: wages, travel benefits, and retirement benefits. The NBA wants to scale back pension benefits and keep wages flat over the life of the CBA, citing the effects of the recession on revenues. The refs want this CBA to run only two years, instead of the usual five, so that they can re-negotiate in an improved future economic climate, and, of course, want wage increases.
One unusual feature of this labor dispute is that the NBA has released information about their offer to the press, probably in an attempt to force the NBRA to settle. These details are seldom made public, an the NBRA is crying foul (sorry, I couldn’t resist). The NBA claimed that entry level referees make $150,000 and experienced referees make upward of $550,000. The union claims that entry level salaries are $91,000 and experienced referees make less than $400,000. The severance package paid to retiring referees, reported to be $575,000 by the NBA, is also under negotiation and a matter of dispute.
The NBA will open the season with non-union referees, drawn from the WNBA, the NBA development league, and other places. The same thing happened in 1995, the last time the NBA and the NBRA couldn’t agree on a new CBA. Because reasonable substitutes for NBA referees exist (it doesn’t take a highly trained expert to let NBA stars get away with walking and palming the ball), it seems unlikely that the NBRA can hold out for too long. Referees don’t have as much bargaining power as players in labor negotiations.