Refs charge NBA with unfair labor practices

The collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and Joey Crawford and the rest of the league's referees expires on Sept. 1

The National Basketball Referee’s Association has filed charges to the National Labor Relations Board contending that the NBA has violated federal laws by engaging in unfair labor practices, Yahoo! Sports has learned.

The charges were outlined in a series of several memos distributed to the NBA’s 60 referees and details what the NBRA describes as “the league’s refusal to negotiate with the union concerning non-economic issues.”

The league’s collective bargaining agreement with its referees expires Sept. 1. The NBA is primarily engaged in a higher-profile labor fight with the players, with a June 30 deadline looming to avoid a work stoppage.

The referees’ union has hired an experienced labor and employment attorney, Lee Seham, to take over the talks with the NBA. The union has met three times with the NBA – including most recently on March 31 – and says the NBA hasn’t responded to any of its proposals.

Seham’s first order of business, according to the memos, had been to find non-economic deal points for the union and the league to agree upon, he reported to his referees. Those include such issues as weight and fitness restrictions, travel issues and anti-discrimination based on race, sex and union activity.

The memo and filing to the National Labor Relations Board also includes details of an alleged “obscene expression” by commissioner David Stern directed at union negotiators in a Jan. 24 meeting, referee sources said.

According to the memo, Stern – referred to as “one of the league’s negotiators” – got angry when the union attorneys sought to include what the union called “standard language found in many collective bargaining agreements” on discrimination.

“One of the league’s negotiators reacted to it with hostility and resorted to the use of an obscene expression in describing its effect,” the memo said. “When the NRBA representatives declined his demand to delete the obscene expression from their notes, this negotiator abruptly left the room.”

When reached Wednesday evening, an NBA spokesman said the league would not comment.

The commissioner’s role in union talks has fallen under increased scrutiny in recent months. Stern told a locker room of NBA All-Stars in Los Angeles that he knew “where the bodies were buried” in the NBA, because he had buried many of them, Yahoo! Sports reported. Seham’s predecessor, Lamell McMorris, told the New York Times that Stern acted in an “unprofessional” and “disrespectful” manner in 2009 talks.

After being told that Yahoo! Sports had obtained the details of the meetings and learned of the filing with the NLRB complaint, Seham issued an email statement.

“The NLRB will ultimately decide whether the NBA has violated federal law,” Seham said in the email. “Our view is that the NBA’s current refusal to negotiate over such issues as discrimination, or the league’s ability to terminate a referee without cause, is an act of bad faith. The NBRA hopes the league will perceive a mutual interest in ensuring the integrity of basketball. In our view, telling the referees that they can be fired without cause defeats that objective.”

The union, according to the memo, claims the NBA has told it and the NLRB that it doesn’t want to negotiate deal points on an article-by-article basis, and prefers to be given a complete proposal. In the memo, union officials told referees they have requested the NBA give them a proposal for a new deal, but said the league has yet to present its own or a counterproposal.

In the memo, the union outlined to referees its rationale for trying to negotiate the non-economic issues months prior to the September deadline for a deal.

“The Association’s approach was dictated by the concern expressed by many members that past negotiations had been conducted in the shadow of imminent contract expiration and that, consequently, many quality-of-life issues and items had never been addressed. It is also common practice in many industries to frontload non-economic items in order that negotiations commence with relatively non-controversial items so that a degree of positive momentum can be developed.”

The NBA and referees barely avoided replacement officials to start the 2009-10 season by agreeing to a deal in October 2009. The league and union agreed on a shorter two-year agreement to expire this September, so they could re-evaluate where the stalled ’09 economy would go.

Seham and NBRA attorneys met with a government investigator in Manhattan on March 25 and told their referees that the NLRB “would determine whether to proceed with the issuance of a formal complaint in approximately 30 days.”