Workers of the world unite

So the NFL lockout has ended in some kind of deal that I would summarize here except that the details of professional sports contract negotiations make my eyes glaze over and, since I’m no longer getting paid to edit NFL labor stories for a daily paper, I’ve reverted back to ignoring all those details.

My frustration with this long saga isn’t just with the tediousness of the dispute, it’s based more on the perpetual missed opportunity that professional athletes’ unions largely ignore to build connections with other workers in other unions.

The athletes of the NFL, the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball have more power and more leverage than most workers and most unions. They possess a very rare set of skills that cannot easily be replaced. The management of, say, the Dallas Cowboys, can’t just decide to start acting like the management of the Gannett Corporation and start fielding a team with only six players on defense, telling them to “do more with less.” They can’t just decide to replace their offensive line with unpaid interns or to outsource special teams to a subcontractor.

Unlike most other unions, the professional athletes have real bargaining power in their labor talks. Over the years, they’ve used that power to leverage big pay raises. That’s nice for them, but making all that money also creates a gap between them and their fans, preventing those fans from being a vocal ally in support of their side in labor disputes like the one that wracked the NFL for the past several months or the ones now threatening the futures of the NBA and NHL.

The fans’ ambivalence toward such disputes is understandable. Ticket prices and the cost of stadium beer are getting outrageous, and it’s not easy for someone who works for a living to sympathize with a bunch of millionaires who make more for playing one game than they could ever hope to earn in a year.

But the athletes unions could overcome that ambivalence by embracing something that, as unions, ought to come naturally: solidarity. More specifically, I mean solidarity with other unions and other workers — with people whose jobs don’t involve games. I mean unions like local police or firefighters or the SEIU.

Some hotel decides to play hardball when renewing the contracts for the housekeeping staff and 20 maids go on strike, picketing outside. That’s a three-paragraph brief buried in the back of the business section and it won’t get covered at all on the local TV news. The maids have no leverage. But put a half-dozen professional athletes on that picket line and suddenly it would be front-page news — a top story not just on the local TV affiliates, but on the national networks and CNN and ESPN. The hotel management’s wait-’em-out strategy would cease to be an option and they would be forced to negotiate with the housekeeping staff.

That little pipe-dream would be great for the maids, of course, but if the players’ unions made a habit of that sort of thing, it would also provide a potentially huge benefit for them in their own labor negotiations. It could fundamentally alter the narrative. Instead of being viewed as whiney, pampered millionaires, the players’ unions could develop a reputation as champions who stick up for the little guy. Instead of ambivalence from the fans, those fans would become powerful allies — vocal partisans in support of the players whose voice could not be ignored by the owners.

It probably wouldn’t hurt ticket sales or TV ratings either.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Viliphied

    I never thought of it that way, but really it’s brilliant. The most logical place to start would be stadium workers, if they ever unionized. It would help show the public that in a lockout of a major league sport, the players are only a small minority of the people who are hurt financially.

  • http://mistformsquirrel.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    While this would be a fantastic idea… I do want to make a 2 point practical note as to why it wouldn’t work quite as intended here.

    First and foremost:  There are only so many pro athletes, and a lot more situations where organized labor needs to strike if things are to change on a broad level (rather than just a few celebrity-fueled one-offs).  Pro athletes also need to spend a lot of time in training – they can’t exactly take that time off to picket out in front of a factory.

    Err, the point being:  A half a dozen NFL players picketing for a maids union would be wonderful for the maids, and probably would reap a lot of rewards for the player’s union… but it’s impractical for the players themselves to actually participate in that fashion.*

    Secondly:  Celebrity has the ability to create a circus atmosphere.  It’s possible that having a big NFL star on the picket line could take attention away from the purpose of the picket to begin with.

    None of that is to say it’s a bad idea – but I think that as-suggested it’s impractical.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I think the more obvious impracticality is that once you become rich solidarity usually seems to extend only to other rich people.

  • http://mistformsquirrel.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    Point taken.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.maki Jon Maki

    Interesting idea, Fred, and you may have a point about the impact it would have on the fans’ ambivalence about pro athletes’ contract negotiations.
    Still wouldn’t make me interested in watching sports, though.

  • Tonio

    The conservatives I know tend to resent Hollywood stars more than the studio moguls who hire them, even though the moguls are far wealthier. I’m not sure if there’s a similar disconnect in their views of players and owners. I do know pro athletes and actors/actresses are in similar situations. Only a tiny minority of both are multi-millionaires. The majority are reasonably well paid for their work but the jobs doesn’t last long.

    Viliphied’s idea for supporting the stadium workers is probably the most workable option for showing solidarity.

  • Sara Goas

    I agree that the idea isn’t the most practical. Still, it’s a great thought. If a few of the players wanted to join a teachers’ union rally here in NJ, I don’t think anyone would turn them away…

  • H. Rasmussen

    I’m pretty sure that some (several? many? most?) of the Green Bay Packers issued a statement of solidarity for the protestors here in Wisconsin earlier this year. I can’t remember if any of them actually showed up at the protests or not, and frankly the whole situation up here still makes me mad enough that I’m not willing to go diving into the archives to figure it out.

    Then again, as a publicly owned team, they have a lot more to lose from not showing solidarity with the people of Wisconsin.

    I dunno, still seems like a nice idea to me.

  • Anonymous

    I think you are underestimating the American public’s distaste of unions and workers in general.  The vast majority of the working public sees itself not as laborers (which they currently are) but as future owners.  They have been completely bamboozled by the media to believe that they will strike it rich,  in just a few years.

    And then you add in the fact that the vast majority of athletes are black, and that will turn away the racist, and the subconsciously racist too (or at least give them a way to espouse their racism without being overt about it, by blaming the “Unions”).

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I think you are underestimating the American public’s distaste of unions and workers in general. The vast majority of the working public sees itself not as laborers (which they currently are) but as future owners. They have been completely bamboozled by the media to believe that they will strike it rich, in just a few years.

    I have never really understood that mentality.  I mean, if I was ever to become a business owner, I would practically insist that my workers be unionized.  If no union existed for them, I would make one for them and make joining it a condition of working at the company.  This is pragmatic if nothing else.  Someone who feels like they have a greater sense of agency in their own career will be more invested in the work they are doing than someone who is not.  By ensuring that the union is present and has an open line of communication, I could keep better tabs on them instead of driving them to conspire against me behind my back.  Further, one thing I have learned is that big companies can be brought to their knees because their upper management does not have any means of getting information from those with their perspective “on the floor” and in practice it slowly leads them to ruin. 

    I have always felt that unions are good embodiments of American values.  We hold equality to be important, but in a capitalist system some degree of inequity is inevitable.  Thus, a mutual relationship between the workers and the management is an important check-and-balance on their respective power, and a method of reconciling those two values.

  • Anonymous

    If no union existed for them, I would make one for them

    Your goals are admirable, but your methods verge on the dictatorial. This seems to be a theme with you. If you do ever find yourself owning a business, or otherwise holding power over other people, I’d urge you to place more value on individual freedom – encouraging your workers to form a union on their own, for example, would make them feel more respected and give them a much greater sense of agency than forming one for them by fiat. They might even decide they don’t want a union – it happens! – and in that event forcing one upon them would make them feel actively disrespected. 

    In other words: an organization that “speaks for” a marginalized and/or disempowered group, founded and run by members of that group? Likely to be credible, and useful to that group. Similar organization, founded and run by outsiders? Likely to be useless at best, a tool for whitewashing oppression at worst.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Your goals are admirable, but your methods verge on the dictatorial. This seems to be a theme with you.

    I suppose that I am tired of people abandoning pragmatism, and those who try to negotiate and bargin being refused all compromise by those who are obstinate.  It may have made me jaded.  I fear that half measures would be insufficient to create a just organization. 

    If you do ever find yourself owning a business, or otherwise holding power over other people, I’d urge you to place more value on individual freedom – encouraging your workers to form a union on their own, for example, would make them feel more respected and give them a much greater sense of agency than forming one for them by fiat. They might even decide they don’t want a union – it happens! – and in that event forcing one upon them would make them feel actively disrespected.

    I am not sure that would work though.  For the organization, as a whole, to function smoothly, there needs to be a close relationship between the management and the union.  To a certain extent, the management is a distinct accessory to the union.  A “House of Nobels” to the union’s “House of Commons”, so to speak (or Senate to House of Representatives if you prefer.)  The central idea that neither group should be trying to get one-up over the other.  If the two sides are independent organizations, we could run into issues with the two houses conspiring against each other rather than communicating and compromising. 

    Another thing is that simply putting the whole union/representation idea up to a majority vote runs the risk that someone is going to get seriously disenfranchised.  Things like Proposition 8 in California have shown that just because the majority of people vote for something does not make it right.  What of those few employees who want to be in a union, but the rest do not?  It does not work unless a sizable portion of the employees are in on it.  Maybe unions are not something that any individual employee might be interested in.  In that case, they can just ignore the union newsletters and not vote on issues.  Sure, they might need to be in the union if they are in the company, but that does not mean that they are forced to participate in the process.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=752002772 Andrew Glasgow

    @twitter-15487831:disqus It sounds to me like the kind of business you’d be most comfortable ‘owning” would be one owned by its employees — a worker’s co-op. In that case, the union and management are pretty much the same thing.

  • Anonymous

    If no union existed for them, I would make one for them

    Your goals are admirable, but your methods verge on the dictatorial. This seems to be a theme with you. If you do ever find yourself owning a business, or otherwise holding power over other people, I’d urge you to place more value on individual freedom – encouraging your workers to form a union on their own, for example, would make them feel more respected and give them a much greater sense of agency than forming one for them by fiat. They might even decide they don’t want a union – it happens! – and in that event forcing one upon them would make them feel actively disrespected. 

    In other words: an organization that “speaks for” a marginalized and/or disempowered group, founded and run by members of that group? Likely to be credible, and useful to that group. Similar organization, founded and run by outsiders? Likely to be useless at best, a tool for whitewashing oppression at worst.

  • Anonymous

    If no union existed for them, I would make one for them

    Your goals are admirable, but your methods verge on the dictatorial. This seems to be a theme with you. If you do ever find yourself owning a business, or otherwise holding power over other people, I’d urge you to place more value on individual freedom – encouraging your workers to form a union on their own, for example, would make them feel more respected and give them a much greater sense of agency than forming one for them by fiat. They might even decide they don’t want a union – it happens! – and in that event forcing one upon them would make them feel actively disrespected. 

    In other words: an organization that “speaks for” a marginalized and/or disempowered group, founded and run by members of that group? Likely to be credible, and useful to that group. Similar organization, founded and run by outsiders? Likely to be useless at best, a tool for whitewashing oppression at worst.

  • Anonymous

    If no union existed for them, I would make one for them and make joining it a condition of working at the company.

    That sounds like a company union.  Those have been illegal in the US since 1935.

    By ensuring that the union is present and has an open line of
    communication, I could keep better tabs on them instead of driving them
    to conspire against me behind my back.

    That doesn’t sound at all like you have your workers interests at heart.  I don’t doubt that you intend good with this, but I would be wary of working at this hypothetical company.

    Thus, a mutual relationship between the workers and the management is an important check-and-balance on their respective power

    I’ve been working in one industry for almost two decades.  When I have been an hourly employee, I’ve been considered a controllable cost.  What the company considered ideal is that I make just enough money that I stay at my job, no more.  Management often has payroll costs to meet in order to get their bonuses.  When I’ve been a salaried employee, I’ve been expected to work sixty to seventy hours a week, mainly to cut down on hours so that management can make the bonuses I mentioned above.  I’ve heard a lot of talk of workers and management “working together for a common goal,” but never has that agreed with the bookkeeping.

    Workers have almost no power in the workplace without an outside party on their behalf.  Government regulations act like this to an extent, but an independent union is much better.  I wouldn’t trust the union you propose with any grievances.  Like I said, I believe that you are trying to achieve an empowered workplace that feels safe and invested in their jobs.  As a potential employee, I wouldn’t trust this offer.

  • http://www.facebook.com/LoneWolf343 Derek Laughlin

    That sounds more like the Distributist idea of the “guild” rather than just a union anymore. I would be totally cool with that development.

  • Anonymous

    So what you are saying is that the nominal allies of the working class, by generally supporting and sticking up for them, might then themselves get the support of the working class when mired in their own difficult negotiations? Quick, someone tell the democrats!

  • Anonymous

    During the 1987 NFL strike, several members of the St. Louis Cardinals crossed a picket line of ticket takers (whose union had issued a statement of support for the NFLPA) to go to the theater.  When informed of that fact, the players chose to stay inside.  Kurt Warner and Terrell Davis crossed an actor’s union picket line in 2000 to appear in commercials.  I don’t expect solidarity with the fans any time soon.

    Pro athletes showing up at picket lines for other unions might help those individual strikes with the publicity.  That also could backfire and link the workers with “greedy” sports stars in the public eye.  Maybe this would simply be a publicity stunt, but it might have a positive effect.  I’d prefer post-game interviews that mention local labor issues over the obligatory Jesus thanking, though.

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    Not to threadjack, but given the theme of recent posts, plus the job-seekers’ threads of late, this seemed appropriate:
    Employers now hiring only “currently employed or recently employed”.

    This is as bad or worse than employers using credit reports as hiring tools. This is deeply, profoundly wrong on many levels.

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    Not to threadjack, but given the theme of recent posts, plus the job-seekers’ threads of late, this seemed appropriate:
    Employers now hiring only “currently employed or recently employed”.

    This is as bad or worse than employers using credit reports as hiring tools. This is deeply, profoundly wrong on many levels.

  • Jenny Islander

    A teachers’ union could get a lot of sentimental mileage out of a famous former student on the picket line, holding a sign like “MY TEACHERS PUT UP WITH ME, GIVE THEM A BREAK.”  For more sentiment and less humor, perhaps “I LOVE MY SCHOOL, THAT’S WHY I’M HERE.”  Or, “TEACHERS GOT ME TO MY GOAL.”  “I OWE EVERY HOME RUN TO THE TEACHERS WHO BELIEVED IN ME.”

  • Green Eggs and Ham

    A great many professional athletes are evangelical/fundamentalist Christians.  They have the unions-give-you-cooties attitude in spades.  

    Besides if they did show up at a picket line; they would hand out tracts to the maids.

    The idea is great though. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=546597797 Elizabeth Huber Evans

    I would recommend suggesting this to a couple particular football players – Heath Evans of the New Orleans Saints was outspoken about how this deal needed to get done. I’ve posted a link to the conversation on his foundation’s facebook page. Scott Fujita of the Cleveland Browns is another football player that I can see getting behind this idea as well. 

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Heath Evans of the New Orleans Saints was outspoken about how this deal
    needed to get done. I’ve posted a link to the conversation on his
    foundation’s facebook page. Scott Fujita of the Cleveland Browns is
    another…

    *ahem* And also a former New Orleans Saint. :-D

    In all seriousness — Drew Brees would be another good player to point this out to. He was a hero to the city even before the superbowl win because he chose to come play despite, or because of, how wrecked the city was after Katrina. He’s got a reputation to maintain as a supporter of underdogs. I hope he would feel what the right thing to do here is.

    The Saints are often pretty darn good guys when it comes to giving back to the community, donating to or raising funds for charity, actively mentoring underprivileged kids — surely they’re not alone among NFL teams in this, either? Surely this is just part of the relationship a football team is supposed to have with its city?

    Maybe I’m just naive?

    Anyway, pointing Brees and the Boyz in this direction can’t be a bad idea.

    (Hits post, hopes hasn’t replicated existing posts too much, continues to read the thread)

  • Anonymous

    It sounds to me like the kind of business you’d be most comfortable ‘owning” would be one owned by its employees — a worker’s co-op. In that case, the union and management are pretty much the same thing.

    Yeah, the whole Co OP concept really sounds like it has potential.  I wonder if it could be practical on a large scale?  Because I think an employee-owned company might help curtail many of the abuses seen in corporate culture…

  • OBCD epidemic

    This is genuinely a brilliant point Fred. I side with player unions on principle as it is but the truth is they COULD be doing a whole lot more to aid the average worker. Mr. Rasmussen is correct in noting that several members of he GB Packers did issue a statement in solidarity with the Wisconsin Public Sector Union protesters, and that’s something to be commended. But still, all to often even an action such as that seems to be asking too much of player unions, which is sad. As trotterjellly mentioned there is a history if player’s unions not only NOT standing in solidarity with other unions but actively breaking pickets. Of course as Chris Doggett mentioned the sad truth is we’ve descended much further than this debate: we live in a Dickensian time in which I have a hard time blaming even those who brake picket lines. Yes, to brake a picket line is reprehensible, but capital is so unlimited today that any opposition makes you unemployable and thus unable to provide for your family or anyone else. This is simply made worse by the fact that the courts have reverted to protecting spending as free speech and nearly readopted the “right of contract.” In short we’ve come full circle to the beginning of the 20th century. Hopefully it doesn’t take a collapse of the same scale to get us back on our feet and wake us up to the fact that protection FROM business is at the very least equally important as protection of business.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    And done. Sent an email via the Contact Us pop-up at the Brees Dream Foundation with a link and with great praise for the team’s drive to do the right thing. May it get where it’s going.