What the NFL Can Teach Us About Labor Disputes


Many people say that conflict and open debate is a sign of a healthy democracy. The ability to speak one’s mind without fear of reprisal is crucial to the fabric of political discourse and compromise. Most notably in the usually docile Midwest where I grew up, recent clashes between unions and newly elected conservative majorities have led to bitter disagreements, resulting in the government's ignoring the voices of workers.

When government refuses its responsibility to engage citizens and compromise, workers have little chance to advocate successfully for their rights. However another recent labor disagreement, the ongoing negotiations between the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA), has been remarkably civil and demonstrates how unions and ownership entities can continue to hold productive dialogues and create solutions that are positive for both sides.

In today’s partisan political environment, issues that formerly served as starting points for negotiations have become flashpoints for conflict. Public protests in Wisconsin over collective bargaining garnered large amounts of publicity and focused the bright lights of the national media on a state that normally prides itself on its open discourse. The tight budget climate makes conflict over cuts in spending, as in Wisconsin, a natural consequence. However, when Republican state legislators exercised the power of their majority and refused to compromise with Democrats or labor groups on any issues, they demonstrated the very need for unions to exist in the first place; to speak for and protect the rights that workers have earned over time.

It is on the issue of compromise that the example of the NFL and its players’ association becomes instructive. While the NFL is extremely successful and its revenues as high as ever, disagreements still exist between ownership and labor over benefits for players and how to best split expanding profits. While they have postured, made biased public statements, and protested, the dialogue between the two sides has continued (although in some cases court ordered) and they continue to move closer to a resolution. Both sides realize that there is something substantial to be gained from their conversation and that much would be lost if the NFL season is cancelled or even delayed for a short time. And so they work to compromise.

Especially in Wisconsin, where the reigning NFL champion Green Bay Packers make their home, the contrast between the styles in union negotiations and resolutions is stark. Were the Republican legislators from Wisconsin to be in charge of NFL negotiations, the dialogue would have likely ended weeks ago with the players forced to return to work without gaining any meaningful privileges. In this way, the NFLPA is an example of the continued usefulness of unions in today’s labor climate when utilized in the right way. Without being overly combative, the NFLPA has efficiently advocated for the rights of its members while maintaining positive public sentiment.

In most cases in the end, the players keep on playing, the owners keep on owning, and the rest of us keep on going about our daily lives. The differences in resolving the recent high profile labor clashes in Wisconsin and the ongoing NFL dispute can be helpful in informing the future of political debate in our country. I just would not have counted on the millionaires and billionaires of the NFL showing us Midwesterners how a civil discourse should look.

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