The last thirty years haven’t exactly been kind to the labor movement. It’s been a story of slow death, with decades of falling unionnumbers, stagnant wages and disappearing pensions–all signs pointing towardtotal oblivion. It’s been the era as former UAW President Doug Fraserput so aptly, "The one sided class war."
That’s why it’s so important for anyone who wants a fighting labormovement, to take a moment and remember the late president of the NFLPlayers Association (NFLPA), Gene Upshaw. Upshaw died on Wednesday at age 63 ofpancreatic cancer. In addition to a storied Hall of Fame playing careerwith the Oakland Raiders, Upshaw headed the NFLPA since 1983. WhenUpshaw started, the average NFL salary was $112,000. Today it is morethan $2 million. Of course the game has exploded with cable televisionand publicly funded stadiums turning revenue streams into floods. ButUpshaw led victorious fights at the negotiating table for free agencyand higher wages against the wealthiest, most well-connected and mostconservative ownership class in sports. Dave Meggyesy, former NFLplayer who headed the West Coast office of the NFLPA until hisretirement last year, said to me yesterday, "I worked with Gene for twenty-fiveyears. We did hundreds of team meetings together and so wellcomplimented each other. I knew intimately how good a leader he reallywas, how much he cared for the players and how strong and tough,relentless really he was to ‘make it right’ for the players. We sharedthat vision, we would do whatever it took until the last man standing."
The great criticism against Upshaw was that he and the union didn’t doenough to help retired players. In a charge led by Mike Ditka–ananti-union zealot–they said the union was allowing former players,broken down by the game, to live penniless and destitute. I have writtenabout this before and I find these charges to be without merit. It’slike blaming an oil workers union for high prices at the pump. Yes, theway some former players live, old and broken before their time, is asin. But to put that on the feet of Upshaw and the union, is simplywrong. As former NFLPA President Troy Vincent pointed out to me, thelast collective bargaining agreement saw pensions for players whoretired before 1982 increased 25 percent. After 1982, they went up 10percent.
For people disabled by the game has seen annual benefits rise from$48,000 to $224,000. For non-football injuries, the rates have gone from$9000 per year in 1982 to $134,000 by 2000. Upshaw "has done an excellent job," NFL player Mike Minter said a year ago to ESPN "You’ve got a lot of older guys who are hurting and it seems like we’re not taking care of them. But where we started, when the man took the job, to where we are today, it’s unbelievable. For anybody to say that this guy is not doing a great job, doesn’t know."Robert Smith, the former Minnesota Viking who was their team union repfor seven years said on ESPN yesterday, "My criticism of Gene was thathe didn’t defend himself more forcibly."
Well, now Gene Upshaw can’t defend himself at all so I will do it now andproudly. His legacy is about showing that solidarity and collectivebargaining actually work. The greatest tribute to Upshaw may have beenthis off-season when the NFL owners voted unanimously to rescind themost recent collective bargaining agreement. The owners, a band ofhostile brothers with more factions than the old politburo, had actuallyunited in fury that Upshaw had pulled too much money out of theirbillion dollar pockets. The rest of the labor movement should take note,and give due to a man who did right by his players and his sport. Thereare lessons here in how to turn around the "one sided class war" andwinning back the wages and benefits torn from the working people of thiscountry. As Meggyesy once said to me about their organizing style,"We’re athletes. And we just really hate to lose."