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The antitrust laws prohibit agreements by two or more that "restrain trade in interstate commerce." Labor unions, by their nature, may engage in such activities when they present demands for better wages, hours and working conditions. When act as representatives of a group of employees and serve as agents for them. So when an agreement between the union and management is concluded, the working must abide under the conditions agreed to. To prevent unions from antitrust liability, a "labor exemption" was created under the Clayton Act of 1914. It has two components. The so-called "statutory" labor exemption allows unions to enter into agreements which may create a monopolistic practice regarding the working conditions of the employees it represents. The "Non-Statutory Labor Exemption" -- the more applicable concept in sports law -- is a judicially-derived expansion of the labor exemption that protects union activity from antitrust scrutiny. It has been the crux of nearly all antitrust actions in professional sports (with the exception of Baseball, which had an blanket exemption from antitrust laws until late in 1998). The non-statutory labor exemption is based on the policy that favors collective bargaining and gives it preference over the antitrust laws. Basically, any union-management agreement that was a product of good faith negotiation will receive protection from the antitrust laws. That means that the provisions of the agreement cannot be attacked as collusive or anti-competitive. Say that a salary cap is agreed to by a union and management. In pure antitrust terms, a cap can be a violation of the antitrust law. But since the cap was part of the collective bargaining agreement negotiatedin good faith and agreed-to by the union and management, the cap cannot attacked in court as a violation of antitrust. The statutory and non-statutory exemptions were intended to help unions from the threat of antitrust suits. But in sports, the tables have been turned. In the past, the exemptions have been used by management to enforce agreements that were "forced" on a weaker union (yes, there have been weak unions in sports!). The NFL players union learned this the hard way, when, after a series of cases in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was ruled that the exemption applied throughout the negotiation process, even after a labor contract expired. This interpretation of the non-statutory exemption was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997. During the recent NBA lockout, there was talk of decertifying the union by certain agents representing star players. Without a union, any imposition of a salary cap could likely violate antitrust laws -- and their top players could then have no constraints in negotiating even higher salaries.

http://www.sportslawnews.com/archive/jargon/LJAntiexemption.html

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Q: What is an antitrust exemption?
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