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Ball Don't Lie

The union didn’t let their players vote on a deal, and that’s OK

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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One of the more interesting factors in the players union's rejection of the league's latest flaming-bag-of-excrement labor proposal has been its decision to not bring it to a vote among the full membership. If this was in fact the NBA's last best offer, then presumably players should have had an opportunity to accept or reject it.

ESPN.com's Henry Abbott thought exactly that and asked the union about it at Monday's press conference. They did not appreciate the question whatsoever:

As soon as that decision was announced, I asked union spokesman Dan Wasserman, who was standing in the back of the room next to attorney Jeffrey Kessler, why the union was turning to the group of 30 representatives.

The union has three player bodies it can consult: The executive committee, the 30 elected representatives and the full membership. Why that middle body? [...]

The gist of the response was that you cannot give your adversary direct access to the membership. "That's not how any union in America, that I'm aware of, operates," said Kessler. If the NBA is just going to send offers straight to the players, why even have a union? The idea is that the union is savvier, and knows a good deal when it sees one. And only when the union is sure that the deal is in players' best interests will they present it to the workers.

Rockets guard Kevin Martin, by text on Monday morning, said he didn't care to be represented that way: "I think it's fair for every player to have a vote, because we're all grown men and its time for the players to control their career decisions, and not one player per team. If it comes down to a final decision, you got to be fair."

He added that other players he had talked to may or may not have voted for the deal the NBA had on the table, but "most feel like we're entitled to a vote!"

No matter how wrong it may have been to dismiss the question out of hand, Kessler is correct. Every union in America elects representatives to work out deals, trusts them to do so, and generally lets their full membership vote only when they are absolutely positive that they'll get 90 percent of them to vote together. Unions are democratic in the same way that republican governments are democratic: members and citizens elect representatives who theoretically reach deals that the majority wants.

The difference is that unions must appear to act in solidarity if they want any semblance of leverage, so a vote that shows a 60/40 split between membership stands to lose bargaining power now and in the future. Even if a majority had accepted this deal -- which seems unlikely given that every team rep is said to have supported decertification -- that majority needed to be overwhelming to avoid future union in-fighting and general disarray. A bad labor deal is problematic enough -- it's even worse if that bad deal gives the union no leverage six years from now when they negotiate the next agreement.

Still, Henry's point has some merit, especially as it pertains to Kevin Martin's comments. Union leaders don't exist just to cut deals; they must also keep their members informed at every step of the process. Given what Martin has said, his team rep and the NBPA's executive committee have failed to communicate the course of negotiations, the problems inherent in current discussions, and the reasons why the current proposal is unacceptable.

The full membership doesn't have to vote on a proposal to feel involved in the process. As long as the union fails to keep them in the loop, they're going to keep complaining. It's hard to blame them, even if their leadership is acting in a way commonly accepted by every union in the country. Standard practices don't matter if you can't explain why they make sense.

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