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Refs made the right call

Unions, we’ve been told, used to be a good thing but are no longer necessary. Try to tell that to the refs.

This week, the National Football League came to terms with their referees union, ending a lockout that saw substitutes officiating pre-season games and the first three games of the regular season. Tuning into Monday Night Football during the lockout offered an object lesson about what unions are and why labor disputes are important. 

Imagine how this dispute would have turned out differently if the refs had tried to negotiate individually with the billionaire owners. The billionaire side set its terms. The refs would have had little power to do anything except to agree to those terms unless together they could make the first side suffer enough to alter the terms.

On the football field or in factories or hotel kitchens or hospitals, the power dynamic is the same.

Hardly the caricature of the union thug denounced regularly on right-wing radio, announcer Steve Young, former San Francisco 49er and Hall of Fame quarterback, summed up why unions matter: “The owners just don’t care!”

Young was right that team owners don’t care about the referees or the players, who are subject to increased risk when inexperienced officials fail to control a violent sport. As long as fans watch, the NFL can sell its products, make billions and not share those billions with those pesky part-time employees, the refs. They also don’t have to pay attention to any of the union rules that protect those officials.

Unions upset people when they threaten strikes or work slowdowns. But unions do more than collect dues and act as a thorn in the side of private and public employers. Unions give employees negotiating clout. Unions also guarantee that in return for the wages and benefits negotiated, owners can expect employees to have a certain level of skill. The referees union, for example, controls who gets hired and maintains apprentice programs for that very reason. The NFL games during the lockout were a clear demonstration of why that kind of quality control is important.

The NFL’s referees were locked out because the owners imagined that they could sit in their luxury boxes in sold-out stadiums and enjoy lucrative television contracts and not have to care.

This strike was not about something easily ignored like education or industrial safety or child labor laws or medical benefits. This was about football, the national passion.

Not caring was a bad call, but it turned out the owners had to care. That’s why unions are still necessary.

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