Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Labor and the NFL Lockout

The AFL-CIO has developed an interesting strategy over the past couple of weeks--tying themselves very closely to the upcoming lockout of NFL players. It's a fairly transparent strategy--unions get nothing but negative publicity in today's media. But Americans love the NFL and will revolt if they don't get their football in the fall. So what better way to generate positive energy for the labor movement than promote the NFLPA as a typical union. This has been all over the AFL-CIO Twitter feed for instance.

It's hard to blame labor for taking this strategy. I mean, why not at this point. I'm not sure how useful it's going to be--I'd guess most Americans are going to blame the players for the labor stoppage despite the fact that it's a lockout rather a strike. But how many people really know the difference? Professional sports unions aren't exactly noted for their working-class solidarity either--a bunch of wealthy Republicans are probably  more embarrassed to be union members than likely to display class pride.

Where this strategy gets a little more skeptical is to call the NFLPA a model union. The NFL's player union is notoriously the weakest of the professional sports unions. The last labor stoppage, in 1987, was a disaster. Players scabbed left and right, or right and right really, given that among the first scabs was Seattle WR and future right-wing congressman from Oklahoma, Steve Largent. Yet Roger Bybee's article on labor strategy from In These Times suggests the labor movement use the NFLPA's revenue sharing scheme as a model:

Back in the 1982 NFL Players Association's strike, as I discussed last week, the union began by crafting a strong message stressing that the owners were merely an impediment to a great sport ("We [the players] are the game").

They trained the NFLPA members to speak to every public meeting they could, developed their own media, and seized every opportunity to spread their message on commercial media.

Ultimately, the players out-strategized and out-hustled the owners, winning a remarkably radical demand for a guaranteed percentage of the wealth that they create.

While the NFLPA is putting many of those lessons to work against the NFL owners' threat of a lockout next month, the 1982 NFLPA strike created a playbook from which the rest of the labor movement could also learn.

Maybe. But it's quite clear to me the real advantage of calling this a model is to remind Americans that their favorite athletes are union members. That's fine and all. But it reeks of desperation.