NFL Referees are Back!—But are unions?

I am neither a Packers nor a Seahawks fan, so the Monday night game that was the turning point in labor negotiations between the National Football League (“NFL”) and the referees (“refs”) didn’t cause me to lose any sleep.  (The Redskins can lose all on their own, thank you).  What did, was the refusal of fans to link the referees’ plight to those of teachers, autoworkers, and other union employees.  Like more obvious public attacks on unions (see, e.g., Scott Walker in Wisconsin), the rise in the use of the lockout is another attempt to wage battle against unions.  As the Times noted last January, “lockouts have grown to represent a record percentage of the nation’s work stoppages . . . .”  This attempt by the NFL was thwarted in part due to public outcry, something clearly missing from the plight of most non-famous, non-professional sports- related workers.  Now that the “real” NFL refs are back, we should take a moment to remember some less famous locked out workers.

A lockout occurs when the employer withholds work from its employees until they agree to certain terms in the course of labor negotiations.  In the case of the NFL refs, the NFL was demanding a switch from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan (explained here) salary reductions, additional officiating crews, and the hiring of several full-time referees, which the current refs feared would force them into full-time positions as well.  The lockout is the employer’s most aggressive bargaining tool.  As Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University stated in the Times,

“This is a sign of increased employer militancy.  Lockouts were once so rare they were almost unheard         of.  Now, not only are employers increasingly on the offensive and trying to call the shots in bargaining, but they’re backing that up with action—in the form of lockouts.”

Meanwhile, the number of strikes has declined drastically in the past twenty years due to the decreased strength of unions and the economic realities that come with striking, including lost pay and potential permanent job loss.

With a serious lack of comparable public attention, the longest lockout this year is going on at American Crystal Sugar (“ACS”).  ACS is the country’s largest sugar beet processor and has locked out 1300 of its unionized employees since August 1, 2011.  The unionized workers refused to concede to higher health care payments, more outsourcing, and reduced retirement benefits, among other things.  (By the way, ACS is a hugely profitable company with big lobbyists in Washington, DC.  In 2011, the company recorded $1.5 billion (with a “b”) in net earnings, and CEO, David Berg took in nearly $2.5 million in total compensation). Much like the replacement refs, the replacement sugar plant workers are less skilled, less disciplined, and less productive, resulting in a drop in ACS share value, and significantly decreased payments to beet farmers.  The economic impact on workers in the region has prompted involvement from members of Congress, the National Consumers League, and union leaders across the country. Locked out workers are struggling to make ends meet as they’re kept from working until they concede to ACS’s demands.

What’s missing is football.  Despite replacement workers who are equally as un-professional as the replacement refs, the ACS lockout is getting much less coverage because it’s not threatening America’s favorite pastime.  The truth is, we should care about both because both are hugely significant.  They both demonstrate a weakening of unions across the country—something we should all be concerned about, whether there is a simultaneous catch involved, or not.

Carter Meader is a third-year law student at American University Washington College of Law, a labor law nerd, and an always hopeful Redskins fan.