Saturday, March 12, 2011

An Opportunity for Labor: Smarter and Wiser?

It is not quite the stretch you might imagine to equate the NFL players decertification of their union and subsequent lawsuit against owners (Millionaires, et. al. vs. Billionaires, et. al.) with Wisconsin Republicans' massive attack on state employee unions.

The most obvious difference, of course, is one of scale: Peyton Manning's millions per year compared to a state cop and his thousands. But there's a good bit more to it than that.

Employee unions of all kinds have their genesis in the same place: unfair management practices, whether it is coal mine owners making virtual slaves of coal miners or baseball owners owning the contracts of their players for as long as they want them with absolutely no opinion accepted from the player. Unions helped equalize the relationship in both those instances and in many more industries in America.

Pre-union "labor practices" didn't exist in this country. Owners simply treated workers any way they wanted, paid them as they chose, fired them at will, discriminated against them because they were African-American or Irish or women or had brown hair. The federal and state governments in the U.S. sent troops to quell labor unrest and in one instance (in West Virginia in 1922) actually sent its new air force to bomb striking miners.

Labor is not without fault in the current climate where it finds itself the underdog most of the time. Greed, affiliation with criminals and the idea that workers are entitled to certain wages, benefits and rights out of line with what most Americans enjoy has worked against the movement, which gave America its middle class. 

Those opposed to organized labor, led by the richest Americans, have brilliantly framed the current debate in tribal terms. Ours is a land of tribes and when you can set them at each other's throats, the people who benefit from their labor are served. Here, though, we have middle class workers in unions being opposed by middle class workers not in unions because of a few dollars difference in pay and benefits per year.

In the case of the NFL, it's simply a matter of scale. The owners have been given exception to normal labor rules and regulations for many years because of what they believe to be the special nature of their sport/business. Let these athletes be free, they reason, and prices will get out of hand. If you look at the price of a ticket to an NFL game (or an NBA game), you see we've achieved that union or no union.

It appears we'll lose pro football for a year and that Wisconsin's state employees will be left to fend for themselves. But the backlash is coming. It's coming soon and my guess is that labor, if it plays this one smart, will emerge much stronger and, I hope, a whole lot wiser.


  1. I also lament the union-busting in Wisconsin, and particularly the mean-spirited targeting of public employees, and especially teachers in this battle.
    "Playing this one smart" means that unions must find ways to be more transparent, and to question their own inflexibility and also the blue-collarization of what ought to be professional fields with clearly demarcated high standards for their own work (esp. teaching). In the middle ages, craft guilds--the predecessors to unions--set professional, high standards for their members. These standards were part of their armor. They justified guild protections.
    Resistance to common-sense flexibility and merit-oriented practices are part of what has made American labor unions easy to demonize. I agree that to sustain a healthy middle class, we need unions. But unions need to self-scrutinize and reform themselves so to serve their memberships--and our whole society--better. Let's hope they can and will. Their members deserve no less.

  2. Mary:
    Hear! Hear! Nicely said, ma'am.