Lockout'11: The cost of a mediator

Jeff of Denver asked a simple question that I'm surprised hasn't generated more public discussion: "Who pays for the federal mediator, the players or the owners?"

The answer, as best I can tell: You do.

As you know by now, the NFL and NFL Players Association have been negotiating for weeks with help from George Cohen of the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service. The FMCS is a government agency with an annual budget of less than $50 million. According to its website, there is no charge "for the most part" for FMCS services:

The Federal government provides most FMCS mediation services in support of collective bargaining free of charge to the parties. FMCS also offers other government-subsidized services for community and organizational conflict resolution. There are modest charges for some services such as arbitration referral.

I reached out to John Arnold, the director of public affairs for FMCS, to clarify whether any of the services being provided to the NFL or its players are fee-based. Via e-mail, here is how Arnold responded: "We are a U.S. government labor relations agency, and our core mission is to provide mediation services to labor and management during collective bargaining to mitigate or avert economically disruptive work stoppages. Mediation is provided with the voluntary consent of both labor and management. The Agency does not charge for mediation in the context of a collective bargaining negotiation."

A reasonable person might not be thrilled to know that taxpayers are footing the bill for mediation while NFL owners and players haggle over how to split revenues in a $9 billion industry, but I'm not going to get worked up about it. There is economic incentive for everyone to avoid an NFL work stoppage, even to taxpayers and the government itself.

Over the past two years, in fact, the FCMS estimates it has saved the U.S. economy $5.1 billion in wages and profits that otherwise would have been lost due to work stoppages. If Cohen can push the sides to an agreement in this case, the expense of tapping into a government program will have been justified.