Today, only 7 percent of private sector workers belong to a union. Union membership has plummeted as unionized companies have become less competitive, in no small part thanks to their unions. Still, some cling to the belief that employees benefit from using political power for temporary gain, regardless of the long-term costs to their livelihood.
Sports fans are seeing this happen now in the NFL dispute. “Greedy owners” are often blamed for any breaks in play, yet in this case the delay of game penalty is on the players union and its political representative, DeMaurice Smith. The union has refused to give any ground on its collective bargaining agreement in a bid to prevent the owners from expanding the league.
A former trial lawyer, Smith became head of the NFL Players Association in March 2009, replacing the late and much-respected former player Gene Upshaw. Smith is not the first non-player to head the NFLPA. He follows in the footsteps of lawyer and political activist Ed Garvey, who persuaded the courts that sports teams form a cartel any time they come together to form a league. In doing so, Garvey relied heavily on the pro-union National Labor Relations Board to threaten owners.
Immediately upon his election, Washingtonian magazine reported, Smith “presented a plan to address the labor dispute by garnering support on Capitol Hill, reinvigorating alliances with unions, and developing a litigation strategy.” From the very beginning of his time at the NFLPA, Smith sought to politicize the labor dispute, rather than bargain with the owners. He quickly asked Congress to investigate the NFL’s tax-exempt status and its limited antitrust exemption.
In February 2010, over a year before the league’s collective bargaining agreement was due to expire, he said the likelihood of a work stoppage was 14 on a scale of one to 10. Over the next year he made frequent trips to Capitol Hill. He also considered decertifying the NFLPA as a labor union, which would instantly put the NFL in violation of antitrust laws.
Smith strengthened the NFLPA’s ties with the AFL-CIO, arranging for players’ dues to be sent to state labor councils (so, for example, dues from the Green Bay Packers were used to fund protests against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s public sector union reforms). By January 2011, Politico reports, DeMaurice Smith, players, and NFLPA staff had made over 300 visits to congressional offices seeking political support. That month, he declared “We are at war! Nobody gets strong without fighting. … Nobody negotiates their way to strength. Nobody talks their way to a good deal.”
As things came to a head in March 2011, the NFL owners offered more financial information than required under the old agreement to support their argument that the current agreement was stifling expansion. The NFLPA rejected their offer, with one representative admitting publicly that the reason for doing so was public perception.
The NFLPA then voted to decertify itself, and some NFLPA-backed players immediately sued the NFL and owners for antitrust violations and to prevent a lockout — the only weapon the owners had. The matter is currently before the courts and the NLRB, with the Appellate Court for the Eighth Circuit seemingly sympathetic to the owners retaining the ability to lock out players.
As with many union bosses who seem to prefer politics to bargaining, DeMaurice Smith has been hell-bent on using the power of government to force the unions’ will on the owners and fans. The NFL labor dispute isn’t — and has never been — about a fair division of football revenue, but about maintaining political power. Football fans deserve better. The courts should call foul on the union’s suit.