How Similar Is The NFL Lockout To The Wisconsin Teachers’ Union Fight?

March 30, 2011 – 3:39 pm by McD

The fight between public-sector unions and the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, has garnered a megaton of headlines in recent weeks as has the NFL lockout. It seems union conflicts have seeped into several parts of the American psyche which they didn’t previously occupy, such as outright hatred and misunderstanding. There have also been numerous attempts to separate union members from “regular” Americans. And there are certain striking similarities between both disputes.

Both the NFLPA and teachers’ unions in Wisconsin negotiated for certain benefits, along with salary, that come along with being employed as a teacher or NFL player. After all, it’s hard to have football without players or classrooms without teachers. These things were agreed to by both sides and have been negotiated in this way for decades. But those “regular” Americans have been steadily losing those same benefits for the past 15-20 years, causing some unwarranted, but understandable, bitterness toward both unions. Besides, it’s hard to feel empathy for NFL players who get to play football for a living, get paid good money to do it, and don’t have to work an actual job in the offseason.

Yet through all this, Americans have been willing to accept less for fellow working citizens because of the same “win or go home” mindset that is so cherished in football and other sports. Some feel that the Republican victory in Wisconsin allows them to enact whatever laws they see fit since, after all, they won a dominant majority in both houses of the legislature and the governorship. And we certainly don’t feel bad for players who don’t play well enough in the NFL to stick with a team. There’s no pity there, and in that game that makes sense. Teams need to win. Not so much for teachers, though.

But more people who aren’t elected officials, people who are just average working Americans, have been led to believe that the benefits of health insurance, a safe retirement package, and good working conditions will always be there for them and guarantees of those things are, in fact, luxuries instead of necessities. And because fewer and fewer Americans have all three, they really DO seem like luxuries. This is where these two disputes become branches of the same tree.

The NFL owners don’t want to pay as much to the players because salaries keep rising at a rate much higher than revenues. The governor of Wisconsin and other elected officials up there believe that collective bargaining for teachers is much too expensive and want to get rid of it in order to balance the state’s budget. Both of those seem like completely rational positions to hold, and, in truth, they really are.

However, it’s not until they have to justify their positions that things get crazy. There is a level of double-talk from both NFL owners and the governor of Wisconsin that shows utter contempt for the workers that make their respective “businesses” go, and much of this is done through comments about how both unions would be just fine without the benefits they have worked so hard to get.

An example from Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin:

Ms. Sampson got a layoff notice because the union leadership would not accept reasonable changes to their contract. Instead, they hid behind a collective-bargaining agreement that costs the taxpayers $101,091 per year for each teacher, protects a 0% contribution for health-insurance premiums, and forces schools to hire and fire based on seniority and union rules.

Two of those things seem like they have a great deal to do with the state’s budget. Except they don’t. Health benefits and contributions, and salaries are negotiated with individual school districts, not the state of Wisconsin. Each district decides what kind of salary scale to implement and usually how much employees must contribute to their health insurance. All this must be mutually agreed upon by the district and the teachers’ union.

THIS is collective bargaining. If any district, or league for that matter, wants to change some part of the way salaries or health benefits etc work, then all they have to do is re-open collective bargaining and make their case. This process involves compromise and the ability to convince people of one’s side of an argument, something those in power are not always great at doing. Looking at you, Roger Goodell.

And even if Wisconsin’s teachers negotiate with the state as a part of their system, the union agreed to have teachers pay more in health insurance and other costly items. But that wasn’t enough for the state legislature and governor. The same way that NFL players giving the owners more money in exchange for better health care for retired players isn’t enough for the owners.

What Governor Walker is really trying to do is cut education funding to save money. But since it would look terrible if he simply says the state will pay less to schools, he is giving districts the opportunity to make employees pay more into their health insurance (something the unions agreed to even before the collective bargaining controversy) and change “working conditions” which potentially means longer mandatory working hours than the usual seven or eight hours teachers are required to put in without increasing their pay, changes to evaluation procedures with no input from the people being evaluated, and, most importantly these reforms potentially allow districts to find ways to hire newer, cheaper teachers and get rid of older, more expensive teachers since those “seniority” rules the governor decries will no longer apply to collective bargaining. And he’s eliminating the chance that the teachers’ union will ever be able to get those things back. Apparently, just solving the budget shortfall isn’t enough, he’s assuming that it will last forever, or at least a prolonged period of time.

The NFL is in a similar situation in that their profits have plateaued and they still believe they need growth every year no matter what. More on that later.

While the obvious parallel is the NFL’s need for a rookie salary scale to help control player salaries, the real similarity is in lengthening the work day without paying anyone more money to work those extra hours. The owners have been saying for over a year now that they want to switch to an 18-game regular season-schedule. While that seems to be a non-starter at this point because the union won’t talk about it without concessions including more players on team rosters, it’s still a goal of ownership. Moreover, regardless of what’s being said to the media, the owners want a larger piece of the NFL’s profits, with one offer including $1 billion off the top of the NFL’s profits and THEN dividing the rest between the players and the owners.

The owners and others have also shown a bit of condescension toward the basic benefits NFL players and public employees already get. Packers’ CEO Mark Murphy is quoted as saying:

You know, right now our current players if they’re vested, and you vest if you play three or more seasons, you get health insurance coverage for five years, which is great. But I look at it, too, and the transition for players from playing in the NFL to finding another career and establishing themselves is very difficult, and I really wonder, sometimes, if we do too much for the players. They’ve got severance pay and a 401(k) plan. I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes it’s not all bad, and going back and talking to some of the players who played for Lombardi in the ’60s — you know, they worked in the off-seasons, and they made a very smooth transition into their second careers because they had to. And so I’m a little worried that if we do too much for players in terms of compensation after their career’s end, and health insurance — it’s not all bad to have an incentive to get a job. And, so those are just some of the things we’re thinking through and talking through.

Yes, health insurance is spoiling the NFL’s former players. Not health insurance for life, even, just regular health insurance for a few years after retirement. And a 401(k) retirement plan that has been shown to be much, much less secure than the old-school pensions my father’s and grandfather’s generation received upon retirement. Admittedly, I’m no expert on the way those pensions worked, but it’s clear businesses such as the NFL no longer feel required to directly financially support the people who contribute to their success.

While an investment-style plan like a 401(k) or a 403(b) for teachers eliminates the possibility that the company paying the pension could suddenly disappear and stop paying the pension altogether, the risk is now all on the retiree’s shoulders. If the market takes a downturn, as it catastrophically did in 2008-09, people’s retirement money could be completely gone, and the businesses they work for don’t have to do anything about it. And this is without taking into account the potential for Enron-style fraud. Not that the NFL’s budget has done anything like shrinking from lack of money.

The NFL would not exist without the players from the Lombardi era Packers’ CEO Mark Murphy so venerates. Not only are players from that time legendary, but it was those exact players who eventually formed the NFLPA in 1956 and began collectively bargaining in 1968, the same year Namath’s Jets beat Unitas’s Colts in Super Bowl III. Those same players from Green Bay, WI and everywhere else in the league decided their working conditions sucked and they needed to work together to fix them so that the risk wasn’t all the players’.

Yet we’re led to believe that teachers and firemen somehow have extraordinary benefits above what the average American has, and we all assume that NFL players, being millionaires and all, have a lavish lifestyle that most Americans can’t identify with. Both of those things might be true, but the real question is why don’t more Americans have a secure retirement, health insurance, and the ability to not be terminated from their jobs for no reason? Apparently, teachers are the envy of every other employed American. As a teacher myself, I’d like my respect in the form of a permanent skybox at the athletic event of my choice, please.

NFL owners and Wisconsin Republicans are using a common assumption to make their point: that NFL players and classroom teachers are essentially replaceable entities. The owners think the fans will come back no matter who is playing for their favorite team, pushing aside for the moment the idea that the fans also care about the players, that we all have memories that have to do with specific players, not just the logo on the helmets. They also think that Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas, or Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have nothing to do with why the fans come to the games and buy seat licenses, and should be treated as such, proving once again that those inside the game have a very hard time picturing the perspective of the fan.

With few or no collective bargaining rights, Wisconsin teachers are going to be evaluated on “merit and performance,” according to Governor Walker. Much like NFL players always have been, right? We’re all okay with that in the NFL because it exists within a culture of “produce or you’re out.” Players sign contracts for big money, sure, but they can also be cut at any moment and not receive a dime of the money left on the deal they signed with the team. Every offseason, there are stories about how a team is going to release a beloved veteran because his deal is too expensive to fit under the cap. Last month, the Jets released Kris Jenkins because he has missed too much time due to injury and had too big a salary cap number for the Jets to re-sign some other major contributors. And we’re all okay with that. The team might even re-sign Jenkins to a smaller deal.

Is it fair to essentially apply the same system to Wisconsin’s teachers? Now they can be fired because they aren’t “performing” (whatever that means, and not even Wisky Republicans know right now), or possibly because they are too old, expensive, have medical costs that are too high, or miss too much work time due to illness? Of course, some of those can’t be the official reasons, but the less scrupulous administrators (and NFL owners) know how to make the system work for them. Actually, the system ALREADY works in favor of the owners in that respect. Governor Walker and the Wisconsin Senate just brought in that same system and applied it to teachers.

Wisconsin teachers paid the price because previous Wisconsin governments made running the state too expensive for the current economic downturn. NFL owners made running an NFL franchise too expensive (through stadium construction, etc) and have blamed increasing player salaries for their problems.

But what the NFLPA and Wisconsin teachers’ unions have the most in common is that they were the only possible targets for their respective adversaries. There is virtually no other way for the NFL owners to drive up profits because of the way they have grown the league. They spend a great deal of money on stadiums, advertising, revenue sharing, and investing. Let’s face it, NFL teams are businesses, and no good business loses money every year, so the owners have to try to make a profit somehow. Not only that, they have to keep increasing profits every year. That’s the philosophy in business.

Governor Walker had no other way to cut more money from state government than to go after teachers unions because every other option either had already been cut or it would make him look incompetent. Cutting police services doesn’t make a new governor look like he cares about the electorate very much. But he had to look like he was doing SOMETHING big, so teachers’ unions became the obvious target. Well that, and it’s helpful to read William Cronon’s blog post about who else influenced Governor Walker as well.

But picking out a small group with which most people are not affiliated and claiming that they are a major contributor to the obvious problems facing the state or the league is classic “red herring” propaganda. In reality, there was no other group to focus on for the governor and the NFL owners couldn’t find any other way to increase their profits. Neither union contributed anything meaningful to the problems facing the league or the state of Wisconsin, but they needed some kind of target so public opinion wasn’t overwhelmingly against them, so both decided to blame the unions that serve them instead.

So what do these two union fights have in common? Class warfare. But not the poor attacking the rich. It’s the other way around, and it’s all in the name of money.

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