Workers of the world unite

Workers of the world unite July 26, 2011

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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