Tuesday, March 1, 2011


“North Dallas Forty” was a good movie about pro football with a number of very good lines. One of them came in a scene in which a group of players were sitting around grousing about some stunt management had pulled at their expense.

“They can’t do that to us-- we’re the team!” exclaimed one player.

“No we’re not,” said a wiser player. “They’re the team. We’re the equipment.”

The line seems especially apt these days as the National Football League’s owners and players’ union close in on the March 3 date (Thursday) when their current labor contract expires. Maybe they’ll reach an agreement before then, and maybe they won’t. Maybe the next NFL season will start on time next September (it’s a long way off), and maybe not. Either way, though, the showdown provides an opportunity for some musings about the state of labor-management relations in these United States, and the balance of power therein.

For starters, there’s no small irony in the fact that in 2011 A.D. America’s most-potent labor organizations are those composed of professional athletes, relative newcomers to organized labor’s ranks. With no little help from their unions, the jocks have waxed rich beyond their own and everyone else’s imaginings, while many of the people whose dollars make their prosperity possible (us) struggle in an ever-more-unforgiving economic climate.

Back in the 1960s, when I broke in as a business-news reporter (covering labor, among other things), much of the nation’s economic drama stemmed from the clashes between the major domestic industries of day—steel, autos, appliances, coal—and the muscular unions that represented their employees. Now, those industries are fragmented and puny, and what’s left of their unions are reduced to trying to hold down whatever cuts in pay and benefits the companies are demanding in the name of competitiveness.

What companies mostly are demanding—and getting—is no unions at all. Union membership in the U.S. last year fell to 12% of wage and salary earners, from 20% in 1983 and 35% or so during the post-war-boom years of the 1950s. If the governor of Wisconsin and like-minded pols have their way, that figure will shrink further in the years ahead. Why shouldn’t states extract 24/7 performance from their workers (with no overtime pay) the way private employers do? Hey, you don’t like it, there’s the door, and there are 15 people waiting to take your job.

Professional athletes had no unions to speak of through most of their history, and lived under contracts that bound players to their teams until the teams chose to trade or release them, so they pretty much had to take what they were offered. Some teams, like the New York Yankees in their 1950s’ glory days, hired private detectives to seek out pecadillos that could be used to blackmail recalcitrants into line.

That began to change in 1966, when the Major League baseball players hired Marvin Miller to head their association. Miller was a real union guy—the United Steelworkers’ chief economist—and a smart one to boot. He saw what some others saw—an industry whose employees possessed skills that were both rare and potentially valuable—but he also recognized that those assets couldn’t be exploited fully unless a base of solidarity could be secured.

Miller’s first major achievement was obtaining binding, outside arbitration of contract disputes, a role the game’s commissioner, an owners’ proxy, formerly filled. In 1975, the cases of the pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally led to the arbitrator’s ruling that threw out baseball’s “reserve clause” and led to the free agency that has fueled spectacular player gains across the team-sport spectrum.

Miller’s second and biggest accomplishment was to convince players to sublimate their short-term interests for broader objectives, no small matter in a profession where careers can be brief and chancy. It took strikes in 1972, 1980 and 1981, and lockouts in 1973 and 1976, to make the point, but it finally took. The upshot has been that the average baseball player’s salary last year stood at $3.3 million, up from $19,000 in 1966, while the game’s minimum salary rose to $400,000 a year from $6,000. Other sports unions marched in baseball’s footprints, and while the footballers haven’t done as well at the bank as the baseballers (they play a much-shorter schedule, after all), they’re doing okay, too, with annual salaries that average $1.8 million and a $260,000 minimum. We all should do as well.

In what may be the biggest irony of all, it turns out that the well-entrenched football players’ union’s most-potent weapon isn’t unionhood, but its lack. Team by team, it has voted to decertify in case of a lockout, something that’s counterintuitive unless one understands that the NFL is a monopoly and its player-control cornerstones—the draft, team-salary caps, free-agency limits and “franchise” tags—are legally acceptable only if they are arrived at through collective bargaining. If there’s no union there’s no collective-bargaining agreement, in which case the whole edifice collapses. Cute, huh?

I’ve just finished reading the novel “The Given Day,” by Dennis Lehane. Its central event is the 1919 Boston police strike, which the Beantown Establishment used to squash the nascent union movement among the city’s much-put-upon cops. Babe Ruth is a character in the book, and his sublime talents allow him to float to a life of wealth and privilege while others in his social class remained mired in the grimy scrum. “What goes around comes around” is a familiar saying, but it ain’t necessarily so. Sometimes, what goes around just keeps on going.

No comments: