Mad About the Sprewell Case? Blame Labor Unions

Basketball all-star Latrell Sprewell, fired by his team and suspended from play for a year by the NBA for choking his coach, had his sentence reduced and contract reinstated by the ruling of a union-mandated arbitrator. While the sporting world is in shock, this perversion of justice is nothing new for organized labor. Unions have used arbitration as a means of choking off dissent for years.

Sprewell was penalized for throttling Golden State Warriors Coach P.J. Carlesimo twice and threatening to kill him during a team practice last year. Under the terms of a contract negotiated between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association, Sprewell’s appeal was handled by an arbitrator rather than in a court of law. The arbiter believed Sprewell has already suffered enough under what he considered an excessive punishment, and is allowing Sprewell to resume playing in time for next season and collect the $16.3 million remaining on his contract with the Warriors.

Players’ union head Bill Hunter said the ruling “reaffirms the sanctity of guaranteed contracts in the NBA.” NBA Commissioner David Stern summed it up another way: “You cannot choke your boss and keep your job unless you are an NBA player. But this is arbitration.”

Public opinion is decidedly against the arbitrator’s ruling in Sprewell’s case. What most people do not know, however, is that this pro-union tilt has been called into question before. The National Right to Work Legal Foundation calls arbitration “union-orchestrated dog and pony shows.” This inherent unfairness will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court later this month.

Organized labor uses arbitration to facilitate its continued use of member dues to finance political activity. In 1986, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Chicago Teachers Union v. Hudson ensured that workers who did not want to join a union had the right to a quick and impartial resolution of disputes arising over the use of their still-mandatory dues payments. Two years later, the Court’s ruling in Communications Workers of America v. Beck entitled workers to a refund of any dues spent for politics of which they did not approve. To combat this erosion of power, union leaders erected procedural hurdles like arbitration to make these freedoms as elusive to workers as possible.

Unions want arbitration — rather than the courts — to be the ultimate voice in worker-union disputes. This is because the rules of the American Arbitration Association (AAA) are written to favor organized labor: only the union can invoke the arbitration process (or can do so without worker consent), only union officials are allowed to “describe the issues involved” and normal courtroom rules regarding evidence and witnesses do not apply.

In a case to be heard this month by the U.S. Supreme Court, 150 Delta Air Line pilots are suing the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) over that union’s unwillingness to provide a full accounting of how membership dues are spent. When the case was forced into arbitration against the pilots’ wishes, their complaint was heard by an arbiter on three occasions over a three-month period, with the only witnesses being ALPA officials using financial summaries and blank forms as their evidence. Not surprisingly, the union won.

In this case, a lower court already noted arbitration is “not… perceived [to be] sympathetic to the concerns of workers.” The AAA itself also loses any appearance of impartiality since its board of directors is dominated by labor leaders like AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman and National Treasury Employees Union President Robert Tobias.

To ensure labor unions are not allowed to abuse the rights of workers by using their dues for political purposes against their will, one simple legislative remedy is “paycheck protection.” This gives workers the power to regularly approve payroll deductions for politics, allowing them the freedom to make their own political choices. While the current legal process requires that workers resign their union membership to get a refund, “paycheck protection” allows proud union members who simply oppose leadership politics to remain members in good standing.

Congress is expected to vote on national “paycheck protection” this summer. In June, Californians will vote on Proposition 226, which will prohibit employers and labor unions from using payroll deductions for politics without prior annual approval. In poll after poll, voter approval of Prop 226 has remained steady at 70%. Despite this support (which is high among union households), organized labor is expected to spend tens of millions of dollars — ironically, collected from member dues — to defeat Prop 226 and the 18 other bills and ballot initiatives championing this cause across America.

Arbitration got Latrell Sprewell back in the game, but the Supreme Court may end up benching organized labor’s future use of the process to get around abiding by the will of union members and the law. Furthermore, “paycheck protection” legislation may send union bosses hoping to fund their own political agendas out of member’s wallets to the showers altogether.

David W. Almasi is the Director of Publications and Media Relations for The National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Comments may be sent to him at [email protected].

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.