An upstart labor organization, the International Brotherhood of Professional Running Backs (IBPRB), has filed a petition with Region 13, the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), seeking to form a separate union for the National Football League’s running backs. The unit clarification petition, NLRB Case No. 13-UC-246227, seeks to sever and create a separate running back bargaining unit from the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), which has historically represented all NFL players regardless of position.

A unit clarification or “UC” petition generally is used to resolve disputes regarding the unit placement of disputed positions, typically newly created positions, in a process referred to as an accretion. However, a UC petition also can be used as a method to affect the subdivision of an existing bargaining unit, as the IBPRB seeks to do here. A severance effort is most often undertaken when some changed circumstances have occurred that have negated any “community of interest” (similarity of terms and conditions of employment) that may have previously existed among the bargaining unit and raise uncertainty regarding the continued appropriateness of the existing bargaining unit.

The petition filed by the IBPRB cited “the unique career structures” of running backs as its basis for the loss of the necessary community of interest between the running backs and the other NFL player members of the NFLPA.

For a successful UC petition, the petitioner must show “recent, substantial changes in their operations, or that other compelling circumstances exist which would warrant disregarding the long-existing bargaining history” of the parties. In Batesville Casket Company, Inc., 283 NLRB 795 (1987), the NLRB relied upon the standard established in Rock-Tenn Co., 274 NLRB 772 (1985), and dismissed a UC petition because the employer-petitioners did not show any “recent, substantial changes in their operations, or that other compelling circumstances which would warrant disregarding the long-existing bargaining history” of the parties.

It may be difficult for the IBPRB to meet the “recent, substantial changes” test.

While the role of a running back has evolved over recent years as the passing game has become the dominant force in offensive schemes, the basic mission of the position– to carry the ball, catch passes, and block – is unchanged. Whatever may be the unique career structures to which the IBPRB referred in the petition (the average career of an NFL running back is 2.5 years compared to 3.3 years for all positions), it may be difficult for the union to show that there have been “recent, substantial changes” in the running back position to satisfy the Batesville Casket threshold for unit clarification.

In representation cases such as this, the regional office of the NLRB conducts an initial investigation and holds a hearing if appropriate. A notice of hearing has not yet been issued. The NLRB may still be in a huddle.

As the ongoing negotiation of a potential extension to the current collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players continues, Jackson Lewis’ Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group will continue to monitor the ongoing status of this NLRB petition and its potential impact to the collective bargaining process. Please feel free to reach out to any member of the Jackson Lewis Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group or our Labor Practice Group with any questions that you may have regarding this issue or the UC process.