Q&A: Lessons from a Labor Leader

Gene Upshaw first encountered Paul Tagliabue in 1980 from a witness stand. He was testifying in a case brought by his boss, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, against the NFL. Davis had sued when the league refused to allow him to move the Raiders to Los Angeles, and Tagliabue was the league's lawyer.

These days, NFL Players Assn. Executive Director Upshaw and Commissioner Tagliabue still face off. But as caretakers of a labor agreement marked by unprecedented cooperation, they're downright chummy. Both call their "partnership" a model for any industry.

Recently, Hall of Famer Upshaw, 57, who played guard for 16 years in Oakland, talked with

BusinessWeek Media Editor Tom Lowry about the secrets of labor peace.

Q: You haven't had a player walkout since 1987, and you have extended your current collective bargaining agreement three times (through 2007). Why are 2,000 NFL players seemingly so content?

A: We agreed to a cap on salaries, sure, but at the same time we negotiated that about 65% to 70% of all shared revenues be designated for the players. That allows us to get a fair share of the pie.

Q: But don't salary caps do a disservice to stars who could earn much more?

A: The salary cap gives teams stability, and that's important. The annual median salary has gone up tremendously in recent years, to about $560,000. The average NFL career is 3.2 years. So next time around, we're going to play hardball to get greater guarantees on contracts.

Q: What is your working relationship like with the commissioner?

A: We will talk about three or four times a week during the season. We both understand that it's in everyone's best interest to have a league that is well run. We don't want to blow a good thing.

Q: Are the owners good businessmen, or are they in it for fun?

A: I know the owners didn't all of a sudden get dumb when they joined our league...[But] the way the NFL is set up, an owner really has to work at it to lose money.

Q: You're a member of the executive council of the AFL-CIO. What lessons can other managers and labor leaders learn from the NFL?

A: All labor leaders are concerned about wages, hours, and working conditions. But the one thing you have to have is that element of trust, a ton of understanding and truth. That's why the NFL owners let us audit their books. If we didn't have [such] access...we'd be pissed off all the time.

Q: Your current contract expires in 2007 in what will be your 24th year running the players group. Will you re-up?

A: When my current contract expires, I will retire. Look at this way: We've got a great product. It fits TV. It fits consumers. I'm sure all that will carry on long after Paul and I are gone.

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