Owners’ Lock Out of NFL Players Raises Some Big Questions
Public employees in Madison and professional football players in Green Bay both face powerful and hostile managements trying to undermine their unions.
David Morris, Alternet, March 24, 2011
What do public employees in Madison earning $40,000 a year and professional football players in Green Bay earning $1.5 million a year have in common? They both face powerful and hostile managements trying to undermine their unions.
The battle between labor and management is always uneven. Up until the 1930s management didn’t even have to negotiate with its workers. Owners could fire union organizers. Courts routinely declared unions an illegal “restraint of trade” and ruled that by trying to negotiate collectively unions were violating the “contract rights” of individual employees and giant corporations to freely negotiate salaries and working conditions.
Only in 1937 did workers finally gain the legal right to form unions and bargain collectively. Corporations were legally required to bargain “in good faith”. Congress established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and gave it judicial authority to enforce labor rights. The NLRB did so enthusiastically for the first few decades, modestly in the 1970s, and not at all after Ronald Reagan took office when he nominated, and Congress confirmed as Chairman of the NLRB Donald Dotson, a man who viewed collective bargaining the way 19th-century courts did, as “the destruction of individual freedom, and the destruction of the marketplace as the mechanism for determining the value of labor”.
Public service unions came of age when private sector unions were strong and the word “union” was a respected word. It was a time when Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower could announce, with widespread approval, “Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of their right to join the union of their choice.”
But even when unions were respected by society as a whole, they were rarely as respected by employers, public or private. Only in 1959 did Wisconsin become the first state to allow collective bargaining by public employees at the local level. In the South, public employee unions had to struggle for recognition, especially when they were composed largely of blacks.
We might recall that when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968 he was there to support a strike by sanitation workers. Two months earlier two black sanitation workers had been crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. In response to the tragedy, the city’s sanitation department gave each of the grieving families one month’s pay and $500 for funeral expenses. No one from the city government attended the funerals.
On February 12, 1968 more than 1,100 black sanitation workers began a strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. King’s assassination did not dissipate the workers’ struggle for dignity. As Taylor Rogers, one of the strike’s organizers recalled, “If you stand up straight, people can’t ride your back. And that’s what we did. We stood up straight.”
The sanitation workers won. Their contract included union recognition, higher wages, a dues check-off, and the updating of the antiquated sanitation equipment. Another practice that had infuriated black workers—sending them home on rainy days without pay while white supervisors stayed and collected a paycheck—was also ended.
A Brief History of the Football Players Union
Professional football players also began to organize when private sector union density was at its peak. But neither the respect of neither unions nor the law convinced the team owners to negotiate. In 1956 players on the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns formed an association and made minimal demands on their team owners: a minimum wage, per diem pay to cover expenses and, believe it or not, a request that the teams pay for their uniforms and equipment!