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Why the NBA and NFL Players Unions Need to Pay Attention to What’s Happening in Wisconsin

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Why the NBA and NFL Players Unions Need to Pay Attention to What’s Happening in Wisconsin

by Mark Anthony Neal from ”New Black Man” Blog

All eyes were on Carmelo Anthony recently, as the NBA star got his wish to be traded to the New York Knicks. In the backdrop of this story is the fact that Anthony would only agree to be traded to the Knicks if they signed him to a contract extension—one that that had to be signed before the NBA’s current collective bargaining agreement ended in June. Collective bargaining agreements are also the minds of NFL players, where they and NFL owners face a March 3rd deadline to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, before the owners will lock the players out of their places of work.

As the influence and prestige of organized labor continues to wane, professional sports unions (and Hollywood writers’ unions) have too often, and unfortunately so, become the face of organized labor. That changed recently when the Wisconsin State legislature presented a bill with the aim of limiting the collective bargaining powers of public workers in the State. For the past two weeks public workers in Wisconsin have taken to the streets to protest the proposed changes, generating a level of solidarity for organized labor that has not been witnessed in decades. As historian Mark Naison noted, the presence of 70, 000 workers in front of the Wisconsin State capitol “is as improbable as Black students sitting in at lunch counters in 35 cities throughout the South.”

Given the historic confluence of recent events—the protests in State capitols in Wisconsin and Ohio are clearly taking energy from the images that we saw in Tahiri Square—the NFL and NBA players unions should be concerned with being on the right side of history, in what may become a new labor movement in this country. It is critical for players to see the connections between their struggles and those of everyday American workers.

That the average American has little regard for the labor strife among groups of professional athletes, including baseball players, who will likely make more money in a year, than most American will make in a lifetime, should not be a surprise. To their credit, professional ballplayers have often tried to downplay their labor concerns (Antonio “can’t remember the name of my kids” Cromartie notwithstanding) knowing full well that such complaints curry little favor for fans struggling to pay their own bills. Such constraint is particularly palpable for NBA and NFL players, where a significant amount of fans might believe that the leagues’ Black players should be grateful for the social status that their athletic careers afford them.

Yet there are comparisons that can be made between workers struggling to retain their collective bargaining powers and professional athletes trying to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement that allows them to retain their hard earned benefits. The same social and political forces that want to take away the ability of public workers to bargain collectively are the same that want to limit the influence of players’ unions. In both instances, at the root of such efforts is to depress the wages of workers.

Often obscured in the visibility of highly paid professional athletes is that they are in fact laborers; they work for the benefit of others’ profits be it team owners, the networks that carry the NBA and NFL, or the companies that use players’ images in advertising. In a strict technical sense, they are exploited labor, as is the case with most working Americans who are underpaid and undervalued, but given how well professional athletes are financially compensated, most miss that fact. Indeed, many of us would love to be “exploited” for $3.4 million a year (the estimated average salary for an NBA player).

The owners’ goals in the new collective agreements with the NFL and the NBA are to bring down labor costs and to increase profits, a process that was begun when both leagues created salary caps more than a decade ago. In theory salary caps control labor cost, but there are no such limits on the profits that owners et al can make from these new labor agreements. Indeed, NFL league owners are pushing for an 18 game season that would generate even more profits at the expense of players’ longevity.

Not surprisingly concerns for cutting budgets is at the forefront of attempts in Wisconsin and others states, to limit the collective bargaining power of public workers. The current push is born out of the current fiscal crisis that the nation faces, but attempts to limit the bargaining power of American workers have been trending for decades.

As Naison observes, “the rise of organized labor, from the mid 1930’s to the mid 1950’s, coincided with a significant improvement in the standard of living of all American workers, whether or not they were in unions.” What we have witnessed over the past 30 years, regardless of the state of the American economy, is American workers giving back many of the gains they derived from organized labor, dovetailing with a redistribution of wealth from the American working class to the wealthiest Americans.

Of course some view professional athletes as being a part of that wealthiest segment of Americans, which is why players union will never garner significant support for their own labor struggles, not matter how legitimate

Perhaps the more thoughtful tact for the leaders of the NFL and NBA players unions is to speak out in support of the workers in states like Wisconsin, Indiana and New Jersey and for some of the most visible players in their leagues to use their celebrity to speak to the importance of collective bargaining rights for all American workers. Such solidarity would not be a simple gesture, but the strongest articulation by professional athletes that they see their fates as inevitably linked to those who are ultimately responsible for their fame and their wealth.

Contemporary athletes have been on sidelines for far too many critical issues that we confront in this country. With attacks on collective bargaining rights in their sports as well as in American statehouses and the offices of the wealthiest Americans (shout to the Koch brothers) they have no excuse not to be in the game, as it were.

Written by demon53

February 28, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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