Construction Literary Magazine

June 2019

Labor in America and How the Nation Almost Lost Football

Labor in America and How the Nation Almost Lost Football

Photograph via Flickr by Christian Toennesen

On August 5, 2011, our short threat of an impending national nightmare ended. The owners of the National Football League reached agreement with the representatives of what had been, for complicated legal reasons stopped being, and once again became, the NFL Players Association. The lockout was over. The 2011 season would begin on time. Football was saved.

And while there was much rejoicing about the fact that agreement had been reached, there was little celebration, or even discussion, of the terms of that agreement and how it was realized. No time to reflect on what the owners had hoped to accomplished by locking out the players or how the players had fended off their most aggressive demands—free agency had started!

Indeed, throughout the lockout there was very little debate about who should win and who should lose, and to what degree. Some columns here and there, but nothing considering the size of the sports media, and a mere trickle compared to the amount of ink spilled every year on whether or where Brett Favre is going to play. There was the typical grumbling about how unseemly it is to see millionaires and billionaires fighting over how to divide their riches, but hardly any discussion about how those riches should, in fact, be divided up.

When people tune in or show up to watch the New England Patriots, to what extent are they drawn by the logo owned by Robert Kraft and to what extent are they drawn by the passes thrown by Tom Brady? How much credit do the owners get for the financial risk they (or their family) took in investing in the team and, maybe, a new stadium? How much credit do the players get for the serious health risks they take and the physical punishment they endure game in and game out? Imagine if the two sides were unable to resolve their differences: who would the people of Wisconsin follow, Josh McCown leading the team that they, their parents, and their grandparents had grown up following? Or Aaron Rodgers captaining the brand new Milwaukee Marauders?

Certainly, the players had their own answers to these questions. The NFL owners had big ambitions at the outset of the lockout. They hated the previous collective bargaining agreement so much that they unanimously voted to opt out of it in 2008, only two years after the deal had been struck. Or, as Carolina Panthers’s owner Jerry Richardson more colorfully put it, “We signed a shitty deal last time and we’re going to stick together and take back our league and fucking do something about it.” And so the owners entered the negotiations over a new agreement, demanding an extra billion dollars in revenue and an increase from a 16-game season to an 18-game season. The owners seemed to think the players were more afraid of a labor stoppage than the owners and that brinksmanship would cause the players to cave. At one meeting, Jerry Jones declared to the players, “I don’t think we’ve got your attention,” pounded his fists together, and walked out of the meeting. The move was intended to make the players nervous about the threat of a lockout, but instead they found it, in one player’s words, “overly dramatic, almost hilarious.”

The players did not quite agree with Richardson’s “our league” characterization. They also didn’t particularly care for the idea of taking the extra physical punishment of two more games per season. And they certainly didn’t like the idea of giving up a billion dollars of the money being paid to watch them take that punishment. The players displayed this solidarity from the outset of the 2010 season; during the first regular season game, on national television, the New Orleans Saints and the Minnesota Vikings—each and every one of them—followed the National Anthem by raising one finger in the air, declaring to the owners and to the world, “We are one.” By standing firm under threat of—and later imposition of—a lockout by the owners, the players won a deal much closer to the player-friendly deal of 2006 than the potential 2010 deal of the owners’ dreams. In essence, the players said, “You need us as much as we need you. We have a say in this too.”

While the nation is reveling in the fact that professional football’s regular season began as scheduled, few people are celebrating the players’ display of solidarity. The lockout has quickly been forgotten and will not be analyzed for any broader meaning. There is a great deal of moralizing and handwringing about the passion with which we follow sports and the acclaim we bestow upon athletes. Flowery essays are written about how sports is a metaphor for life. Ad campaigns center upon whether athletes are or should be role models. And yet, the area of sports that we like to talk about the least is the area from which we could learn the most.

Shortly before the NFLPA became big news, labor unions made the headlines when Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin decided to use the national economic crisis as an excuse to bust the state’s public sector unions and labor responded with massive demonstrations at the statehouse. All too briefly, America seemed to be on the verge of a national conversation about the role of unions and of the proper division of power between business and workers. Progressive commentators—particularly strong work was done by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones—situated the fight in Wisconsin as part of an ongoing effort by big business to consolidate political power. These writers noted that the decreasing number of American workers belonging to unions has led to a decrease in institutional strength for the middle class.

In turn, decreased power in the workplace has led to decreased power in the legislatures. While unions were at their height, they drove a Democratic coalition that passed and signed laws that built and strengthened the middle class. The strength of the labor movement was such that even Republicans, though certainly hostile, could not totally ignore the interests of labor. Dwight Eisenhower appointed Democrats to the position of Secretary of Labor. Richard Nixon signed the landmark workplace safety law that created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. As labor’s influence has waned, Republicans have been free to engage in an all-out war on the interests of workers while Democrats have found themselves increasingly free to ignore them.

“Free to ignore them,” however, may be putting it too weakly—with unions unable to provide as much muscle as they once did, Democrats find themselves relying on donations from corporate interests almost to the same extent as Republicans. Today’s Democratic Party is, in a way, obligated to ignore the interests of workers. The result has been decades of government action more friendly to the upper-class than the working-class: lower taxes for corporations and high earners with an accompanying decrease in spending on social programs and rollback of regulations intended to benefit workers, consumers, and the environment. Incomes at the top have skyrocketed while middle-class wages have, in real terms, remained stagnant.

The national conversation about the importance of unions that seemed imminent during the height of the Wisconsin conflict never really materialized. When the lockout hit and labor unions were, at least in name, in the news again, the dispute was never tied to broader issues of the state of labor. If anything, the public will draw the wrong lesson from the lockout and the exercise of solidarity by the players. Despite the fact that the influence of organized labor has been steadily declining, polls show that an increasing number of Americans believe that unions are too powerful. One possible explanation is that as the share of the workforce belonging to a union declines, public opinion toward unions is shaped not by personal experience but by those unions that still make headlines: teachers’ unions scapegoated for failing schools, public employee unions blamed for state and local budget crises, and, yes, professional athletes fighting for a bigger slice of a multi-billion-dollar pie. The result is something like a death spiral for American workers: as inequality grows and the need for working Americans to have institutional strength increases, the percentage of the working class that is organized is decreasing. And the more Americans lose touch with the benefits that organization provides, the more indifferent, or even hostile, they become to organizing.

Workers in all spheres should demand, “You can’t do this without us. We have a say in this too.”  The broader struggle between labor and capital in the United States parallels the NFL lockout in that not nearly enough people are asking critical questions about what is fair and what is just. Where the two differ is that in the broader struggle, more and more each year, only one side is fighting.