Opinion

The Great Debate

The college football assembly line

By Nelson Lichtenstein
April 2, 2014

Here’s a tale of two factories and the way the public feels about those who labor there. Nothing could be more iconic than an automobile factory where workers put in eight or more hours a day on the assembly line. The work is boring, the pace unrelenting and injuries are not uncommon, but the pay is better than working in fast food or at Wal-Mart. Volkswagen’s modern, efficient Chattanooga factory is such a place.

Then there are the “football factories.” A good one is at Northwestern University, where players are formally enrolled as students, but they spend the bulk of their time in practice for several months of the year. Their tuition and living expenses are paid through an athletic scholarship, the value of which is often more than an autoworker earns in a year. At Northwestern, 97 percent of these players are said to graduate.

In both these factories the workers are trying to unionize. Northwestern has been in the news because a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that though football players are labeled as students, they actually spend most of their time as de facto employees under the boss-like supervision of well-compensated sports professionals.

This decision, certain to be appealed, has won much applause, even among sports columnists and other commentators not previously known for pro-union sentiments.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, an effort by the United Auto Workers to win a NLRB representation election at VW was defeated amidst a barrage of anti-union invective by many of the most influential state officeholders as well as powerful conservative lobby groups.

Why this stark contrast and what does it tell us about how Americans think about fairness at work and the capacity of unions to do something about it?

When the appeals and court rulings are finished, it is unlikely that the Northwestern University football players — or any other college players — will be represented by a trade union. But it is probable that they will be defined as employees covered by workers’ compensation laws, earning a salary and perhaps taking home a slice of the millions of dollars that the major football conferences generate each year from their lucrative TV contracts.

Americans, including football and basketball fans, are fed up with the fiction peddled by the NCAA and the powerhouse sports factories that the players are serious students as well as trained athletes. We hate hypocrisy. The Washington Post, whose owners once broke a printers’ strike, denounced major-conference basketball and football teams that “exploit many of their players. By pretending the system is designed to help them, the teams add insult to sometimes literal injury.”

The implications here run far beyond college sports. A distorted employment law has over the years defined far too many workers as something else — exempt from the legal protections and regulations that are part of being an employee. Too many truckers and temp workers are now paid as “independent contractors,” while millions of other workers are classified as “managers” — even if they earn as little as $24,000 a year, are part of the faculty at a private college or exercise even a smidgeon of supervisory responsibility at an otherwise routine job.

Like football players, teaching assistants at private schools have been defined as students, no matter how many hours they put into grading papers. Workers classified in this manner can forget about overtime pay or the right to join a union.

Of course, the workers at the VW auto factory are defined as workers by law, custom and culture. They get overtime pay, Social Security retirement benefits and unemployment insurance in the event of a layoff. For more than three quarters of a century they have held the legal right to form a “union of their own choosing.”

But in practice this right is fast disappearing from American politics and culture.  Although VW’s top management remained neutral in the run-up to the February NLRB election, the UAW faced unrelenting opposition from Republican kingpins like Grover Norquist, whose “Center for Worker Freedom” bankrolled Chattanooga opponents of the union–  including some Tea Party auto workers who compared the UAW to the Yankee invaders who burned Atlanta in the Civil War.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam warned that auto-parts suppliers would shun Chattanooga if VW went union, while state legislators warned that if the UAW won, VW would lose its tax incentives. Senator Bob Corker, no friend of the Tea Party in the Senate, nonetheless proved himself a genuine Southern conservative by putting his considerable prestige on the side of the “vote no” campaign.

Did the money and influence of these conservative elites prove more decisive than the white, politically conservative, evangelical character of so many Chattanooga VW workers?

It is impossible to say. But what is clear is that in Tennessee and so many other states this kind of public anti-unionism carries no shame and no taint of hypocrisy; even when it so clearly traduces the purpose of American collective bargaining law, a set of statutes designed to encourage the private, non-governmental resolution of disputes between workers and managers.

So why has the specter of organization among  undergraduate athletes at an elite school won so much applause, while that same effort has been pillared when blue-collar workers in Chattanooga threatened to form a union?

The first reason is obvious: Southern conservatives hate unions because they are not just workplace institutions but political organizations as well, often Democratic and liberal, which threaten their political and economic hegemony. It is highly unlikely that a union of college athletes would play such a role — not unlike the existing unions of professional baseball and football players, which have largely stayed out of partisan politics.

But more important, American elites, even liberal ones, are largely indifferent or hostile to self-organization among poor people — which includes the vast bulk of American workers. Pro-union labor law reform has failed repeatedly over the last half century, even when the Democrats were in control in Washington. When was the last time a liberal politician argued as steadfastly for unionization of a hotel or factory in his district as Corker argued in opposition?

Despite all the cant about big government, most Americans would rather reform college sports with a new set of regulations that will tame the NCAA and offer athletes a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. That will be good for the Northwestern players. And through that example, it will help reform a dysfunctional labor law that deprives millions of other workers of justice on the job.

 

PHOTO (TOP): The United Auto Workers union logo is seen on the front of the UAW Solidarity House in Detroit, Michigan, September 8, 2011. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook and Brian Snyder

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Volkswagen employees work on the assembly line of the 2012 VW Passat in Chattanooga, Tennessee, December 1, 2011. REUTERS/Billy Weeks

PHOTO (INSERT 2): The NCAA logo is seen on the side of a hotel in Dallas, Texas, March 30, 2013.  REUTERS/Jim Young

 


Comments
2 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

…and being pro union, likewise, carries no shame and no taint of hypocrisy.

The author is in a stream of consciousness with no relevant point to make, other than the last paragraph. The American people, contrary to her wishful thinking, have little or no stake in the NCAA, or the paying of athletes (who are already getting paid in terms of their room, board, tuition, books and insurance coverage.) We should all be so fortunate.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive
 

The NLRB never met a union it didn’t like.

Posted by Pudgy | Report as abusive
 

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