Could Sports Labor Disputes Taint America’s Image of Unions?

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    (MintPress) — Last March, America’s most popular sport was on the verge of a work stoppage. The National Football League (NFL) was splintered between team owners and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) over divided revenue, benefits for retired players and alleged antitrust issues.

    The issue dragged itself out through the spring and early summer months, with the owners claiming the NFLPA, the sole union for players, was destroying the league by its harsh demands, which prevented the owners from advancing the league’s status in America. The NFLPA said the owners were only trying to line their pockets and treated players like a revolving door of talent.

    Needless to say, the groups came to a collective bargaining agreement prior to the season starting, saving what millions of fans wanted. But the process hurt the public perception of the NFLPA, shaping it as a collection of well-to-do-for players who were only trying to further their wealth. The owners were cast as the rich trying to get richer, but also flexing their power against their employees.

    If that process sounds like the recent political debate between politicians and labor unions, it’s because it’s not a far deviation from what has been happening. In fact, labor disputes in sports are probably some of the few that play themselves out in the public light, and that’s no different than the current talks happening with the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) and the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA).

    As it currently stands, two high-profile unions of very different backgrounds are squared off in labor battles over very similar goals. The NHLPA and the Chicago Teacher’s Union are both looking for a fair share in salary. And with NHL players making significantly more on a yearly basis than the average public school teacher, the demands for more money could hurt the reputation of unions as many have argued that unions are too costly for states to negotiate with during the economic downturn.


    Recent defeats

    First and foremost, media coverage plays a significant role in the portrayal of unions and their demands. Abraham Madkour, executive editor of the Sports Business Journal, said sympathy with players unions in sports is often times driven by the media’s portrayal of them. That, in turn, drives public opinion of not only sports unions, but labor unions as a whole. And because the nation’s highest profile labor disputes occur before our very eyes in the sports domain, union bashing has impacted sports just as it has public service unions.

    “In the current NHL talks, public opinion and media coverage are clearly on the side of the players. Some would say that’s not a surprise, especially when it comes to the media, but the media is not always player-friendly,” Madkour said. “In the NFL talks last year, there was a sense by many on the players’ side that pro-management media fueled anti-player sentiment. During the NBA talks, there was less advocacy of ownership and its position, but also a clear recognition that the NBA’s system was flawed and needed to be changed to assist ownership in operating more efficiently in smaller markets.”

    On Monday, Chicago public school teachers implemented their first formal strike in 25 years. The group is holding out for higher pay, better benefits and, most importantly, doing away with a new system that evaluates teachers based on students’ standardized tests. Prior to announcing the strike, union president Karen Lewis said as many as 6,000 teachers could lose their job under the new evaluation system.

    “This is no way to measure the effectiveness of an educator,” Lewis said. “Further, there are too many factors beyond our control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control.”

    President Barack Obama has supported labor unions during a time when high-profile battles have been thrust into the political spotlight in states such as Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker looked to limit the collective bargaining rights of state workers. After surviving a recall election, political and business experts speculated that the ruling would begin to hurt labor unions in future negotiations because of the support shown for Walker.

    Ohio saw a similar restrictive collective bargaining law pass prior to the Scott ruling, only to see voters turn down the measure pushed through by Republican Gov. John Kasich. Harley Shaiken, a University of California at Berkeley professor who studies unionism, said the political attacks against the labor organizations have made them susceptible to future restrictions if voters continue to side with Republican ideologies.

    “This [Wisconsin vote] was a defeat and a serious one for unions,” Shaiken told the Washington Post. “But it doesn’t say they’re a paper tiger. It says they’re vulnerable.”


    Dwindling public support

    In 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 2009 saw the fewest number of major work stoppages since 1947. The report accounts for “both worker-initiated strikes and employer-initiated lockouts that involve 1,000 workers or more.” Despite the report, favorability ratings reached their lowest point since 1985, according to a 2010 report by the Pew Research Center. Gallup found similar attitudes, when their 2009 survey on union favorability came in at 48 percent, the lowest it had recorded since the polling organization began asking the question in 1936.

    The crash in public support came a few years after the NHL canceled an entire season over failed negotiations dealing with the collective bargaining agreement between the players union and team owners. It was the first year since 1919 that the Stanley Cup had not been awarded, but another year with another high-profile sports labor dispute that drew the ire of cynical fans. A decade earlier, baseball fans witnessed the largest work stoppage in sports history when the entire 1994 Major League Baseball (MLB) season was canceled, along with the World Series, after players balked at the proposed salary cap on teams.

    Since then, sports have been a barrage of labor disputes between unions and league owners: The 2011 NBA season was delayed because of failed negotiations of an expired collective bargaining agreement; the NFL had its scare in 2011 as well and this year NFL referees are holding out, prompting the NFL to find replacement officials for games.

    While the state of labor in professional sports continually finds itself in peril, public perception of labor unions indicates that a majority of Americans now believe that unions benefit workers, but harm competitiveness in the U.S. A 2011 Pew Research poll found a steady decline in both business and labor favorability. Pew notes that the union busting tactics taken on by the Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio is a sign of the times and a political platform.

    “In recent years, positive attitudes about labor unions have declined significantly across most demographic groups,” Pew said. “Labor union favorability among Republicans has dropped from 47 percent to 29 percent, while unfavorable opinions have risen from 45 percent to 58 percent.”

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