SBJ/February 19 - 25, 2007/This Weeks News

NHL says players’ union should keep side deals secret

The NHL has gotten involved in a federal investigation into whether the NHL Players’ Association violated a U.S. labor law by refusing to let players in on all of the details of agreements between the league and the union in the labor deal that ended the lockout.

The NHL has asked that the agreements, known as “side letters” because they add to or elaborate on details from the basic collective-bargaining agreement, be kept secret from players. In an e-mail to SportsBusiness Journal, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly wrote, “Our interest in this matter is based exclusively on our desire to protect our agreement with the [players association] to maintain the confidentiality of certain letter agreements entered into as between the parties.”

There are 30 side letters to the NHL labor deal, 21 of which are in the published version of the deal. Ted Saskin, executive director of the union, said in an e-mail that he agreed with the league to keep the other nine letters confidential because they contain “sensitive economic data.”

The National Labor Relations Board, on the other hand, has not agreed with that argument.In a letter dated July 10, 2006, and recently obtained by SportsBusiness Journal, the NLRB told the union that its general counsel concluded that the union’s “failure and refusal” to provide NHL players with the labor agreement and all of its side letters violated the National Labor Relations Act.

The letter proposed that the union settle the labor complaint, which was originally made by a group of players in September 2005, by posting a notice in all U.S. NHL locker rooms telling players that all of the details of the labor deal were available on request.

That never happened, nor did the NLRB push the issue. In fact, rather than following standard procedure and taking its findings to a judge, the board reopened its investigation.

“There were some issues raised by the parties that we decided we were going to take up,” said Don Zavelo, deputy regional attorney for the New York region of the NLRB. “The league has an interest in the case.”

While Zavelo wouldn’t give details about the information the NHL gave to the board, he did say that the NLRB is in the “final stages” of its investigation.

Daly, in e-mails, said case law supports the NHL’s position that the letters are confidential, but he wouldn’t provide details.

Saskin wouldn’t comment on the letter or answer questions about the investigation. His hiring as executive director and the negotiation of the labor deal are the subject of another investigation, this one being conducted by a Toronto attorney hired by a group of players seeking answers about the negotiation of the deal that ended the 2004-05 lockout. Some of the same players who called for that investigation were part of the group that originally filed the complaint with the NLRB. That complaint also raised questions about the hiring of Saskin and the firing of his predecessor, Bob Goodenow. Saskin has repeatedly said that there is no basis for the players’ claims.

Some hockey sources speculated last week that the NHL has entered the case to help the union chief avoid a legal finding that he broke the law. It is curious, these sources say, that the NHL and NHLPA are fighting so hard to keep the letters secret, when some players have already seen them.

It was only after the claim was filed with the NLRB, and in response to player outcry, that Saskin posted 21 of the side letters on the players’ Web site. Some agents and players said that certain players have been able to view the other nine, but it is not clear who saw those letters or when they were viewed. Dwayne Roloson, a player who complained to the NLRB, said, “I have only seen part of them. Whatever was on our Web site, but that is all.”

Saskin, in an e-mail, said that “the material provisions contained in the letter agreements were shared with the players during ratification” of the labor deal.

But some players and agents say that players were not told until after they had voted on the deal about the contents of the side letters, including one that pledges union money to the NHL if players are paid too high a percentage of leaguewide revenue.

“For the NHLPA to say the players have seen the letters … is a red herring,” said agent Neil Sheehy. “They didn’t show the players the letters when they requested them and they didn’t show the players the letters at the time of ratification. I believe the players had the right to know.”

Richard Marcus,an attorney representing players who filed the NLRB claim, said NLRB officials first told him in late 2006 that the NHL was contending that some of the letter agreements were confidential.

“I told them I was frankly amazed to hear that,” Marcus said. “How can the letters be not confidential to Ted Saskin but confidential to the people who employ him?”

Two labor lawyers said that management has been able to keep proprietary, economic information secret from unions in the past, but said they have never heard of a case in which the union already has the information and keeps it secret from its own members.

Marcus added that the NHL’s claim that the letters are confidential proves the players’ contention that they did not see the letters prior to ratification of the agreement.

Marcus also expressed dismay at the way the NLRB is handling the investigation.

“I have never, in my 44 years (as a labor lawyer), seen a delay of this kind in investigating an unfair labor charge,” Marcus said.

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