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Walkouts, Payouts and Lockouts | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Walkouts, Payouts and Lockouts

My new Think Again column takes pity on those poor, underappreciated folk in the tea party, about whom so many in the media are so vicious and hurtful and it’s here.

My Nation column is called “Ronald Reagan Superstar.” You can guess what that’s about. It’s here

And my Daily Beast column this week was about Obama’s awful budget, and that’s here

And here's a video of my appearance on Busboys and Poets, broadcast on CSPAN's Book TV last week

But now here’s Reed:

Walkouts, Payouts, and Lockouts: Why the NFL’s labor dispute should matter to you

Imagine you are a union member at a workplace that had defied the dire economic straits of recent years and instead seen its annual revenue rise by nearly 50 percent in the past five years. Now, imagine if the owners of that successful entity presented you with the following choice: Either sign a new contract that essentially requires accepting a decrease in your share of revenue and an increase in your workload at your (physically ruinous) job or risk being shut out of work and replaced. Oh, and did I forget to mention the part about how the media will do such a poor job of accurately explaining the situation that most of the public will think you went on strike and thus brand you a greedy bastard?

In a nutshell, that’s where the NFL’s labor negotiations stand right now as the owners and players’ union head into the final two weeks of the current collective bargaining agreement. Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, one of the few sportswriters who hasn’t succumbed to the league’s wooing and carefully constructed talking points, summed it up better than I could yesterday:

“[The owners] believe they are entitled to make money every year, even in the midst of disastrous recessions. They think they are owed a living…The core issue is this: Owners resent the fact that a lot of [fans’] money is going into the pockets of players, instead of into their own.”

How much is “a lot” of money, according to the owners? Well, last year, players took home around 53% of the league’s $9.3 billion in annual revenue, leaving the owners with a measly 47% of the cut. Doesn’t seem so unfair to me, especially since the players are the ones, you know, actually playing the games and risking injury.

So what’s behind the owners trying to drive such a hard bargain? Well, total player compensation has doubled since 2003 and, despite a roughly corresponding rise in league revenue, that just doesn’t sit right with management, as Jenkins pointed out. And when she says they “resent” it, she’s being a bit kind.

In fact, last March, at a private league meeting, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson (no relation!) blasted the terms of the current CBA, despite the fact that, just four years earlier, it had won the owners’ approval in a lopsided vote of 30–2. Regardless, Richardson reportedly drew raucous applause from the assembled owners when he let loose an aggrieved rant that had him sounding more like a laid off Tea Partier waving a Gadsden flag than the owner of an NFL franchise that is estimated by Forbes to be worth a cool billion dollars.

“We signed a shitty deal last time and we’re going to stick together and take back our league and fucking do something about it.”

That’s right, Richardson and the other NFL owners are now suggesting that they were somehow duped by the NFLPA, which has a longstanding reputation as the worst, most ineffective players’ union in professional sports. (Despite it being the most violent of professional team sports, where the average playing career barely lasts three seasons, pro football continues to be the only one without guaranteed contracts.) If only Richardson and his innocent billionaire buddies had had the means to hire a few lawyers so they could negotiate a better deal from those scheming players!

This retroactive contract outrage was also working full tilt this week, after GM announced it would be giving $400 million in bonus payouts to its executives and hourly workers after its “dramatic turnaround” had resulted in significant profits. Right on cue, Fox News turned on the indignation spigot. Here’s a telling back-and-forth between America’s Newsroom co-host Martha MacCallum and Fox Business host Eric Bolling:

MACCALLUM: What really steamed me, is that it turns out, surprise, surprise, GM and Chrysler are about to head into union negotiations, okay? And during the whole thing, during the whole bailout, the, you know, everyone, the whole country said, ‘Well, you’ve got to give something back, too, right?’ So they got all the union folks to say, ‘Well, we’ll give back this, we’ll give back that.’ Now they're saying, ‘Well, we want it back,’ right?

BOLLING: Here's what they gave back. They gave back an hourly wage, their wages were here and there's much controversy on what they actually started at. They reduced their hourly wage, now they're going back into negotiation in September, I will guarantee you they're going to want that higher wage. In the meantime, Martha, the UAW, on this deal, on the GM deal alone, not the Chrysler deal, has $4.3 billion of our money that they didn't have before, because they were given ownership of GM. Given ownership.

The nerve! Union employees that took a pay cut to help their employer two years ago now want that “higher wage” restored since the company is profitable again. Don’t they know that’s not how capitalism works? And not for nothing, but I don’t remember a long line of interested investors standing behind the UAW in 2009, wanting to be “given ownership” of a car company that many were saying had no chance of surviving. Again, I guess taking a big risk and then expecting to enjoy a big reward when it pays off only applies to owners not labor.

The NFL owners, it appears, aren’t about to make a similar mistake—the extra $1 billion a year they want for themselves in the new CBA would largely be devoted to building massive, new profit centers stadiums, kind of like the one Richardson is now agitating for in Charlotte. These new facilities are ostensibly about hosting football games, but in reality they are more like giant outdoor casinos, cleverly designed to separate fans from their money at almost every turn, whether through public funding of their construction, the selling of personal seat licenses or exorbitant parking, ticket and concession prices. And if you think NFL owners are above shamelessly milking this “build it and they will come (and pay)” scheme for all it’s worth, I would point out that Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers’ current home, which Richardson is so keen to replace, opened way back in 1996.

OK, you might argue, but why should I really care about a contract dispute between millionaires and billionaires when real middle-class labor battles, like the inspiring public sector protests and teacher walkouts happening in Wisconsin, are brewing elsewhere around the country? First of all, to pick a nit, most NFL players aren’t actually millionaires—the median salary in 2010 stood at just under $800,000. Of course, that's enough to pay a dozen good teachers (and I ought to know, my wife is one of them), but it’s not just players that will be affected if the owners execute a lockout. According to a union estimate, an NFL work stoppage lasting through 2011 could cost each NFL city $140 million in lost revenue and result in the loss of thousands of good-paying middle-class jobs.

But beyond that micro-economic impact is a larger, cultural one. Right or wrong, for many Americans, the current NFL labor dispute represents another, highly visible symbol of the battle between employers and employees, management and union. And it’s importance arises from the fact that the current dispute very clearly demonstrates that even when a business is experiencing unsurpassed popularity and enjoying lucrative profits, that company’s ownership still cannot be expected to share those spoils with its employees without the force of collective bargaining power.

Indeed, the NFL’s increasingly belligerent negotiating tactics, following hard on the heels of what was a wildly successful Super Bowl, in a way, also gives the lie to all the talk of sacrifice being spouted by so many Republican elected officials nowadays. People like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (who seems to fancy himself a modern day Orville Faubus) and Ohio Governor John Kasich try to cloak their draconian public sector layoffs and anti-union legislation as necessary measures to survive these troubled times, but that’s just a convenient excuse. In reality, their fondness for hollowing out collective bargaining power and assaulting real wages isn’t born out of dire circumstances. Instead, these policy choices spring forth from the same old-fashioned conservative mindset that fueled the rise of the Robber Barons more than a century ago and that propels their modern day counterparts in the NFL today—squeezing labor in every way possible, in good times and in bad.

The Mail:
From my old friend and one-time professor, Richard Polenberg:
I’m writing to let you know that I’ll be returning to Slope Radio this semester, and that a video I’ve just done of early Dylan songs will soon be available on Cornell’s cybertower website.

In the video, “Bob Dylan and the Sixties: the Cold War and Civil Rights,” I talk about Dylan in the years 1962 and 1963, and the songs he wrote about racial and economic injustice and the danger of nuclear war. Some songs dealt with highly visible issues that were front-page news at the time, others with problems that were less evident but no less real, such as poverty, violence, and the cruelty of the prison system. I sing and play several of Dylan’s songs – “The Ballad of Donald White,” “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “Masters of War,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “The Times They Are A-Changing”—accompanied by my son, Michael, who plays mandolin, guitar and twelve-string guitar. My good friend, Annie Burns, joins in on a few of the songs.

The video will be available at http://cybertower.cornell.edu.

My web-based Slope Radio program, “Key to the Highway,” will be broadcast on Wednesdays from 7 to 8 pm, but the shows are archived so you can hear them whenever you wish. All 48 past programs are also available.

You can log on at http://slopemedia.org/radio and click on Key to the Highway. No username or password is necessary.

2011’s first program, “Betty and Dupree,” will be broadcast on February 16. It tells the tale of Frank Dupree, a 19 year old youth who promised his girlfriend, Betty Andrews, a present; so he stole a diamond ring from a store in Atlanta, Georgia, and murdered a detective in the course of the robbery. He was eventually apprehended, tried, convicted and hanged in 1922. I’ll play many of the songs written about the event, from the earliest, recorded in 1930, to one done by The Grateful Dead.

The next program is devoted to Blind Willie McTell (1903-1959), the subject of a superb new biography by Michael Gray. His 1928 recording of “Statesboro Blues” has been covered by Taj Mahal and countless others. I’ll play some of McTell’s recordings made during the 1930s, and a few of the songs and stories that John and Ruby Lomax recorded in an Atlanta hotel when they chanced to meet him in November 1940.

The third program, “Delia’s Gone,” is about 14-year old Delia Green, murdered by her 16-year old boyfriend Moses Houston in Savannah, Georgia on Christmas eve in 1900. I’ll play many versions of the song, from the earliest, recorded in 1923, to the most recent, cut in 2010, and Bob Dylan’s unbelievably great version on his 1993 album “World Gone Wrong.”

I plan to devote other shows to Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins, Hank Williams, and Bob Marley, to the song “Duncan and Brady,” to the music written about the Sacco and Vanzetti case, and to the Lomax-Seeger-Guthrie collection called “Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People,” and -- well, I’m not sure what else, so if you have any suggestions I’d welcome them.

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