For most of my working life-- the 38 years I spent with the Wall Street Journal—I was a union member, first with the independent union that represented only Journal people and later with the national Communications Workers of America. The WSJ (Dow Jones & Co., actually) was a good place to work but it was a large company, with thousands of employees, and many times I was glad I had something bigger than me to represent my interests.
The recent decline in union membership in this land is sad, I think. Without such a buffer, many employers have been emboldened to demand 24/7 devotion from the people they hire while giving back little in the way of loyalty or security. In today’s lucky-to-have-a-job economy, the sign above the door over the typical workplace reads “like it or lump it.” That’s not a good thing for the 99%.
One realm in which unions not only have survived but flourished, though, is big-time professional sports. It took the athletes a long time to realize it, but their irreplaceable gifts and skills give them the sort of bargaining power others only can envy, and since they finally hired leaders astute enough to wield it-- most notably Marvin Miller, the ex-baseball-union head who died last week at age 95—they’ve prospered beyond their own or anyone else’s wildest dreams.
In 1967, the year before the Major League baseball union negotiated its first collective-bargaining agreement with the owners, the game’s annual minimum salary stood at $6,000. Today it’s $480,000. The comparable numbers in the National Football League are $7,000 and $390,000. Those gains are records not only for this planet but, I’m sure, also for any others in the universe that might be inhabited. Any young man who lasts two or three seasons in either sport’s bigs—scrub or star -- will earn more than his father probably will in a lifetime. Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?
But as successful as the sports unions have been at the bank, they’ve let down their members badly in other ways. Indeed, their single-minded focus on the paycheck has been the cause of the sort of short-sightedness that endangers the players’ enjoyment of their riches.
The baseball union’s main failing was its handling of the use of the performance-enhancing drugs (anabolic steroids, mostly) that shaped their sport for a 15-year period (1990-2005). Baseball’s rules preluded use of the substances for that entire span, but the ban was toothless because of the game’s failure to implement any sort of effective testing procedures until ‘05. Team owners closed their eyes to the situation because they feared that exposing it might hurt their teams at the gate. The union went along with the charade, declaring drug use a “privacy” issue.
Of the two stances, the owners’ made the most sense; they are, after all, in it only for the money. The union, however, had the additional duty to protect its members’ overall well being, and its complicity forced each player to make the Faustian choice between the possible performance rewards of drug use and the small but real health risks the substances posed, either directly or by exacerbating other conditions. That a wrong decision could be tragic is witnessed by the death of Ken Caminiti, in 2004 at age 41, eight years after his steroids-fueled National League MVP season. The full bill has yet to arrive.
The NFL Players Association is flunking a similar test in its handling of the player-safety issues that have dominated the sport’s headlines the past couple seasons. When the league uncovered the New Orleans Saints’ appalling bounty scandal last spring, and slapped suspensions on several Saints’ coaches and defensive players (including season-long sentences for head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was alleged to have put up money for the aim-to-maim hits), the union sprang into action-- not on behalf of the victims of the scheme but the player perps, getting Vilma’s sentence reduced and supplying lawyers for three other Saints who are contesting their penalties in Federal court. The players contend that league hearing practices violate their rights, and while I’m a big a due-process fan it would have been nice to hear their union express some concern for the players those guys targeted.
Worse yet as been the union’s championing of the perpetrators of the sort of helmet-to-helmet hits that are the prime cause of the concussions epidemic that poses an existential threat to the sport. The latest of these is the Baltimore Ravens’ safety Ed Reed, a serial headhunter who’s been cited for such offenses three times in as many seasons. Reed was handed a one-game suspension for his smackdown of Pittsburgh Steelers’ receiver Emmanuel Sanders in a November 18 game, but with union help Reed got the penalty reduced to a fine that will keep him on the field while saving him almost $400,000.
The hit in question took place in the open for all to see--you can check it out online. Nothing about it recommends mitigation. If it’s not worth a suspension, nothing is. Maybe that’s the point.
Fact is, the concussions problem in football is dire and despite pious rhetoric is getting worse at all levels. Former players are lined up by the hundreds to sue the NFL, charging it did little to prevent head injuries in past years and downplayed their significance once they occurred. Sensible moms and dads are telling their sons to take up soccer instead. One would think the players’ union would be up in arms, screaming for rules that might allow more of its members to work crosswords puzzles when they’re 40 (like one banning head shots, on penalty of expulsion). Instead it protects the miscreants, making a bad situation worse.
If I were an NFL player I’d demand a dues refund.
And hire a good lawyer.