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Sports labor is familiar ground for mediator

George Cohen may play a major role in MLS labor talks. The bigger question is: Might he play a role in CBA negotiations for the NFL, NHL, NBA or MLB?

 Cohen, the newly appointed director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, stepped into the soccer labor negotiations last week, acting as a mediator in at least two bargaining sessions between MLS and the MLS Players Union, sources said. No one was talking about what went on at the bargaining table, but news that Cohen was going to mediate was seen by many as a positive sign that the league and the union could work out a deal before the MLS season is set to begin March 25.

To say that Cohen, one of the most respected labor lawyers in the country, is no stranger to sports is a gross understatement. In his 40 or so years with Washington, D.C., law firm Bredhoff & Kaiser, he worked for the MLB Players Association and the National Basketball Players Association. Most recently he was a member of the NHL Players’ Association advisory board, a position he resigned before President Obama appointed him to head the federal mediation service.

He played a major role in the history of sports labor when he represented the MLBPA before U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor, now a Supreme Court justice. “He is the lawyer who argued before Judge Sotomayor the day she issued the injunction that ended the baseball strike of 1995,” said MLBPA Executive Director Michael Weiner.

With CBAs expiring in the four major leagues next year, Cohen could find himself involved in sports disputes beyond MLS.

George Cohen was involved in MLS labor
talks last week.

“I think it is quite possible and maybe probable, depending on the competing demands of his time,” said Bill Gould, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, who has known Cohen since they worked at the NLRB as junior attorneys in the early 1960s.

The mediation service was created as an independent agency in 1947 to promote labor-management peace in the private and public sectors and offers mediation, arbitration and other dispute resolution services. It contacts employers and employees unions 30 days before the expiration of collective-bargaining agreements, said John Arnold, director of public affairs for the service.

In the case of MLS, whose old CBA expired Jan. 31, Cohen offered his services as a mediator. Both the league and union agreed, although it is not known how long it took before the decision to include him was made.

“It is a voluntary process,” Arnold said. “We don’t enter a dispute unless we have the consent of both parties.”

The service’s rules require mediators to disclose any potential conflicts of interest to both parties and to recuse themselves from cases in which they believe a past relationship could affect their ability to function as a neutral, Arnold said. The agency declined a request to interview Cohen, citing the confidential nature of his work.

Still, labor experts say Cohen could act as a mediator even in sports in which he has worked on the union side.

“Ultimately the question would be if both sides would accept him, and I think ultimately they would,” Gould said. “Everyone in labor relations has great respect for George and his integrity.”

Labor sources on both the player side and the league side of the table echoed that sentiment. Rob Manfred, MLB executive vice president of labor relations, said, “Among my top five all-time labor practitioners, George Cohen would be on the list.”

People who know Cohen mention not only his legal prowess but also his charm.

“He is a wonderful person,” said Buzz Hargrove, who served with Cohen on the NHLPA’s advisory board. “He has exceptional people skills. … He’s candid, affable, with a good sense of humor.”

The NFL and the NBA are engaged in contentious labor negotiations in which both leagues are seeking concessions from players. The NFL’s CBA expires in March 2011 and the NBA’s three months later.

But spokespersons for the NFL, NBA, NFLPA and NBPA, when asked whether Cohen might act as a mediator in those negotiations, said it would be premature to answer.

“We have no plans for mediation, and we are a long way from having to even consider it,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello wrote in an e-mail. “The goal is for our negotiations to be successful before reaching that point.

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