Labor Unions In Peril: From Wisconsin To The NFL

Last week, Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and his colleagues in the state legislature finally launched what some political pundits called, a bit ominously, their nuclear option. The target of their assault? The state’s public sector labor unions.

By the time the smoke had cleared from an arcane legislative maneuver, one that enabled them to pass their law without a single Democratic vote, the devastation was complete. Wisconsin’s public unions were forbidden to negotiate collectively about any issue other than wage increases; furthermore, their annual wage increases were limited to the rate of inflation. They were also forbidden to collect annual dues through routine payroll processes, and they were ordered to submit to periodic referenda by the labor force, elections that will threaten the possibility of union decertification each year.

Such restrictions, in essence, downgrade the power and authority of the Wisconsin public sector unions to levels typically held by trade associations. Somewhat lost in last week’s political hullabaloo over these developments, though, was a story about another trade union that found itself similarly threatened.

Tom Brady, Quarterback … and Union Hero

Although Major League Baseball still refers to itself as America’s national pastime, the National Football League is undoubtedly the most successful and popular professional sporting association in the United States. Its 32 teams collectively earn $9.3 billion annually in revenue; its Super Bowl championship game alone brings hundreds of millions of dollars of economic benefits to each city that serves as its host.

Last week, though, negotiations between NFL management representatives and the player’s union over a new collective bargaining agreement collapsed. In an unusual legal maneuver, the players then chose to decertify their own union, which positioned them to file an anti-trust lawsuit that asks a court to issue an injunction to prevent management from locking them out of training camp. Without such an injunction, the team owners could simply cancel the 2011 season and “wait out” the players, or — even worse, from the perspective of the players — they could hire temporary “scab” replacement athletes to play regular season games as they successfully did in 1987.

The player’s lawsuit was filed by a number of superstar athletes, including current Most Valuable Player Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. Because the names of the athletes are listed by the court in alphabetical order on the legal docket, the case will go down in history as “Brady versus the NFL.”

Beginning of the End … or of a Renaissance?

It would be incongruous, of course, to compare Tom Brady’s reported $18 million annual salary to the far smaller compensation levels earned by Wisconsin’s public sector employees. Likewise, it would be misleading to ignore, in response to last week’s developments, the immense differences between the howls of outrage expressed by laborers in America’s Dairyland and the cool sense of confidence exuded by America’s football heroes.

Nevertheless, within the time span of a single day, the labor movement of the United States found itself confronting a pair of unprecedented challenges at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. With Governor Scott Walker signing Wisconsin’s labor bill into law last Saturday, coinciding with the decertification of the NFL union and the filing of “Brady v. NFL” on the same day, America’s union forces suddenly had reason to contemplate the end of their existence.

It’s possible, of course, that the American public will rally to the defense of its labor force, and that — as predicted somewhat optimistically by AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka — what we are witnessing is actually the beginning of a labor renaissance. After all, polls have indeed found widespread public support for the continuation of collective bargaining activities by public sector unions. Nevertheless, with state fiscal budgets in tatters, and with NFL owners facing no shortage of ready and willing replacement players, it is not difficult to foresee a potentially catastrophic outcome for the labor movement.

China or Pakistan, Germany or Italy

Pro-management forces, of course, are hoping for just such a catastrophe, claiming that nations like China have become economic dynamos by avoiding unionization activities, and that nations like Italy have become economic laggards by surrendering to union demands. On the other hand, pro-union forces retort that nations like Germany have built export-oriented powerhouses on the foundations of union labor, and that nations like Pakistan are sinking economically despite maintaining few restrictions against low wages and child labor.

It is hard to imagine labor unions ever disappearing entirely from the American scene, just as it is hard to imagine Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security (to say nothing of America’s system of free public education) ever vanishing from the national landscape. Nevertheless, at a time when Wisconsin laborers and all-star NFL quarterbacks find themselves facing similar existential threats in their respective labor disputes, it is reasonable to wonder whether a fundamental shift is now occurring in the American economy.

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