Organized workers in the United States are down but not out. While Scott Walker sleeps peacefully in the Wisconsin Governor’s Mansion having survived a recall effort, renegade Wal-Mart workers have walked off their jobs at the nation’s foremost union-busting corporation for the first time in that company’s 50-year history. While teachers in New Jersey may have their work cut out with Governor Bobby Bacala, teachers in Chicago have stood up and revealed the city’s cool dad, Rahm Emmanuel, to be no friend to labor–and a Nickleback fan to boot. When faced with complex and depressing political questions, most Americans do the sensible thing and turn to the sports page. Unfortunately for them, this shit is going on there too.
There probably won’t be an NHL season this year. Maybe that’s a good thing, but neither the owners nor the NHL players are looking good after this past week of negotiations. Meanwhile in the NFL, the notorious replacement referees have been sent back to calling games for the Harlem Globetrotters, and the professional refs are enjoying the kind of appreciation that can only come from people realizing how much worse things are without you. In a nation that looks to professional sports for everything that it is missing—heroism, greatness, collective triumph—the spate of labor disputes that continue to rock pro leagues offers some sobering lessons.
The first lesson is that no matter how much you make, when you try to organize for better wages, benefits, and working conditions, you will always be told that you have enough to begin with, you have more than most, and that you are ungrateful. Ignore it. This is said of millionaire athletes as quickly as it’s said of service workers fighting for an increase in the minimum wage. When public sector workers like Chicago’s teachers organize, the union-busting press is eager to point to the private sector, where working conditions are even worse. Their solution is to bring everyone down to that abysmal level! It’s only fair.
Second lesson: It has become far too comfortable to be a scab laborer in the United States. “Replacement ref” is a kind euphemism. They were fucking scabs. This glaring reality was overshadowed by the fact that they were completely incompetent, and sure, when someone with such famously acute judgment as Bill Clinton weighs in on a bad football call, the ref was obviously wrong. But the real bad call these refs made was crossing a picket line, and nobody seemed too upset about that. When a group of workers at my job threatened to go on strike, the scabs were nonchalant about their intentions to cross the picket line. They were actually able to look us in the face. Scabbing used to be shameful in America. And it should be again.
Finally, big unions will always turn inward and say fuck everyone else. They will focus on getting their small class of workers what they need. The players and refs are taken care of, and that’s great. But what about the ticket takers, concession workers, and janitors? Sure, some of them are unionized, but many aren’t and would be quickly fired if they even tried to organize. The players aren’t the only workers in sports by a long shot. Players’ unions represent the narrow interests of professional athletes, not the interests of other workers who perform necessary labor that enables the on field exploits that fans crave.
It might be unrealistic to think that players’ unions would band together with janitors and fight for their collective interests. But facing the loss of job security, unemployment, underemployment, and the evisceration of the social safety net, the need for American workers to find commonality is as pressing now as it was a hundred years ago. The struggle of everyday workers, students, and unemployed to join together across these lines and to defy the narrow focus of the unions, will not appear on the sports page. But professional sports, for all of their provisions of fantasy, come down to real dollars, real jobs, and real decisions. It’s time for America’s workers to follow the lead of their heroes and get in the game.