Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Monday Night Solidarity

The most powerful unions left in America protect the very skilled workers of a few highly specialized fields, and when they strike, America notices.

They don’t represent industrial workers, teachers, postal workers or teamsters. Their members aren’t “Joe Six-Packs.” They have last names like Ochocinco, Jeter, Iverson and Ovechkin.

At a time when many Americans are shunning unions for their “socialism,” more people turned on their TVs last Sunday to watch two teams of card-carrying union members play football than had watched any other TV program in history.

The union involved with the NFL — the NFL Players Association or NFLPA — routinely fights for the pay and benefits of players. Sure, these are highly skilled and sought-after players who make millions of dollars, not factory workers on minimum wage, but the union ensures they are not cheated by owners.

The NFLPA and NFL team owners are at an impasse over a new contract, and it could cause a lockout of the entire 2011 season unless the two parties can come to an agreement over a new contract. A similar dispute led to a lockout of the entire 2005 NHL season, but hockey isn’t as big in the United States as football. A strike by players cancelled much of the 1994 Major League Baseball season, including the World Series (and was ultimately resolved by a federal judge by the name of Sonia Sotomayor).

Should the 2011 season lead to a lockout, it would be the first time since 1987 that an NFL game was cancelled due to a labor dispute. The 1987 strike caused the cancellation of one game and three games were played with replacement players. (That season would later see my Cleveland Browns come up three yards short of the Super Bowl, but that’s a wholly unrelated tragedy.)

The NFLPA is powerful in part because of the public nature of the NFL. If, say, bus drivers on a college campus went on strike, not many people would notice. If the Super Bowl gets cancelled because players are upset, people would pay attention.

America’s most visible unions today seem to be for mostly well-paying and prominent workers, such as the unions for professional sports and others like the Screen Actors Guild.

Unfortunately, these people are often not the people who need representation.

While Ben Affleck and Drew Brees are union members, corporate America makes sure to spend plenty of time and money convincing low-wage workers that unions are harmful. When I worked at Target last summer, my orientation video about how unions are corrupt and steal your money was about twice as long as every other video on company policy combined.

While our heroes on the gridiron and the screen are organizing to protect their interests, the rest of us are trying to get by on our own. The advantage that these unions have is that the popularity of their workers makes it hard to subvert the union. Nobody wants to watch replacement players play football while Peyton and Eli picket Roger Goodell’s office. When the names that draw people to the game walk out, owners listen.

Unfortunately it isn’t that way for the rest of us. When auto workers in Detroit strike one too many times, bosses pack up and move the factory to a place where workers won’t stand up. Outsourcing work to other countries is the modern equivalent of bringing in strikebreakers to dismantle a union.

The United Auto Workers are portrayed as greedy and are often seen as the cause of the collapse of the Detroit auto industry. God forbid our workers make enough to live comfortably. The National Education Association is seen as greedy for demanding higher pay at taxpayers’ expense. God forbid our teachers make enough money to dedicate themselves to the education of our nation’s youth. God forbid our top students might consider education because they’d be able to make a decent living off of it.

While people may criticize the salaries of athletes, this is seldom blamed on the unions.

The good thing about the strength of the NFLPA and other professional sports labor unions is that we know that the money from every Dallas Cowboys jersey is going mostly to the players we actually watch on the field and not to Jerry Jones, who hasn’t blocked a linebacker in decades.

Maybe that’s one reason kids want to grow up to be sports stars: Workers in that industry get their share.

Jonathan Reed is the opinions editor of The Crimson White. His column runs on Fridays.

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