Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The 'Players' Association

The NFL season may apparently not be the only one in jeopardy. With the National Football League Player's Association having de-certified itself in order to take its negotiations with team owners to court, the prospect of a 2011 football season grows ever dimmer. 

Adding insult to injury however, are stories that continue to emerge about the National Basketball Player's Association being in a similar situation. College prospects in the midst of the NCAA tournament are also considering staying in school rather than taking a chance of a basketball lockout next season. According to a story in the Kansas City Star, the NBPA issued a handbook to its members earlier this month entitled "Hope for the best, Prepare for the worst". It seems as though the collective bargaining agreement for this professional sport is set to expire on June 30th, and the potential for a labor action puts its season in serious jeopardy for next year as well. 

Now I'm not a big professional sports fan, though I do like watching a sporting event or two in person and on television. The reason that this topic intrigues me however is because of the recent discussion of unions in this country, and the apparently unique nature of professional sport unions. In no other type of negotiations between labor and management that I am aware of do a group of employees negotiate some part of their compensation as a group, but their salaries as individuals. Players in each sport in fact negotiate signing bonuses, length of contract, salary, and performance bonuses on an individual basis (often of course, with the help of an agent). While there may be league limits in some cases, the game of compensation is played one-on-one. Personally, I would like to understand the mentality of this type of bargaining, when the only collective to be seen is the team of people used to negotiate the package for the athlete (and take their 15%).

Imagine if you will, if Teamsters working on their next contract with UPS or FedEx were to have the union negotiate health benefits and retirement packages as a group, but leave the issue of individual salaries up to the members. I'm not sure that you can, for indeed the concept of employees being paid on such a basis (a system perhaps based on merit rather than seniority) is an anathema to the rest of the unionized world. Strikes in other industries are quite often based on a standard of pay, regardless of merit, for each individual worker. 

In light of the furor over changes in Wisconsin law over the concept that government workers might be compensated based on merit rather than simple union membership or seniority, I began to wonder what all of the fuss was about. The state of Wisconsin is simply seeking to reward its workers in the same way as team owners do these professional athletes. Of course these workers will gain no privileges of 'franchise status' or 'free agency', but they might be able to earn signing or performance bonus for a job well done. Who could possibly be against rewards to those best serving the public interest? 

Another question relating to professional athletes occurred to me, in that these pros are apparently required to join the union in order to work at their chosen profession even if they work in "right to work states". I know that the team owners are provided some legal protection from federal anti-trust laws through long-standing (and probably questionable) legislative fiat, but I was not aware that the player's unions in sports were likewise granted protection from state labor laws. I believe in the historic principle of collective bargaining, though not as a universal concept. 

I believe that were it not for unions mines would probably still be unsafe, work hours in factories would probably be too long, and employee compensation would probably be too little. I likewise believe that like the days of the blacksmith, such days are probably more a part of our past than our future. I further believe that forced enrollment in a union in order to work at a chosen profession is an infringement of personal freedom and not a right. Every state should be a "right to work state", and employees should be free to choose whether joining such a organization is in their own best interest. 

The concept of government unions is even more complex, since the normal balance of cost and profit cannot hold sway, and because the government almost always holds a monopoly on the services that it provides. As such, the concept of collective bargaining rights for this type of employee is perhaps long overdue for a careful re-examination. 

The world is a much smaller place than it once was, and employers can easily relocate facilities to friendlier labor oases anywhere in the world if they choose to. The potential for connecting products and services from such hospitable environments to the markets that require them has never been greater. Discovering how to balance the fair compensation of employees that produce things, at a price that the greatest number can afford, may prove to be the most difficult negotiation of all in the days ahead. Rather than chain ourselves to ideas of the past, we need to remain open to alternatives for the future. As for professional athletes, they appear to have the best of all possible worlds ... at least for now. Generous group benefit packages that are guaranteed, and individual salaries that are the envy of most of the rest of us make even their potentially short careers lucrative indeed. 

One can argue that they are receiving too little, just the right amount, or far too much for the work that they do. Almost no one however, will argue that with the way they get to negotiate their compensation, they are players indeed!

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