Sunday, September 30, 2012
Bread and Circuses
"We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately"
-Benjamin Franklin, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, 1776
Last year, in a highly publicized series of events, Scott Walker ended the collective bargaining rights of most public employees in Wisconsin. What was less well publicized were massive cuts to public education that came in the budget that followed Act 10. These cuts would eventually total over a billion dollars, and were some of the highest cuts per pupil in the entire nation.
Based upon Wisconsin's history of tremendous public schools, I would have expected that these draconian and unnecessary cuts would have brought people in the streets much like the attack on public sector workers had. In addition to losing their collective bargaining rights, our teachers would see class sizes increase and resources dwindle. Every parent that has a kid in public school had a stake in this situation, as did every employer that relies on a workforce educated in Wisconsin. Yet there has been relative silence since the protests around Act 10 ended.
In my more frustrated and cynical moments, I would routinely remark to my wife that the one scenario that would finally cause outrage would be if the budget cuts resulted in high schools disbanding football teams. I feel safe in saying that if this occurred, Wisconsinites would absolutely lose their minds.
It is in this context that I watched the recent labor dispute between the NFL and the referees association. After the awakening of my political consciousness during the Wisconsin protests, I have followed labor disputes very intently, particularly when these disputes involve employers trampling on the rights of vulnerable groups of workers. Since Act 10, Wisconsin has seen several such disputes, including Manitowoc Crane and Palermo's Pizza. These were the first private sector casualties of the anti-labor climate Walker and his cronies created.
It became clear that the main dispute between the NFL and the referees was over pension benefits. The league wanted to change the referee's pension plan from defined benefit pension to defined contribution plan, thus ridding itself of ongoing pension obligations at the expense of the referees' financial future. The result of the proposed changes would be that NFL would reduce its funding obligation by 60%, and the referees would be switched over to a 401K-style plan managed by the very people that crashed our economy a few short years ago. This should sound familiar to Wisconsinites participating in the Wisconsin Retirement System, and every other employee nationwide that is fighting to keep a defined benefit pension promised to them by their employer. It is the express goal of the right wing and groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council to eliminate defined benefit pensions, pensions which had a huge role in creating the middle class in this country. As I wrote about in Enemy at the Gates, the defined benefit pension has been in decline over the past 30 years, replaced by defined contribution, 401K style investments. It is these kind of investments that were decimated by Wall Street during 2008, plans which shift the entire investment risk to the individual worker while enriching the financial sector.
Here are some facts to provide some context to the lockout of the NFL referees. There are about 120 members of the NFL referees union. The starting NFL referee salary is $78,000 a season, making refs clearly some of the lowest compensated professionals in the NFL. They are also paid less than the referees of the other major, and less profitable, professional sports. Major League Baseball umpires make in the neighborhood of $100,000 to $280,000 a year, plus an additional $50,000 in expenses. The refs in the National Basketball Association make anywhere from $90,000 to $225,000. Referees in the National Hockey League make $115,000 to $220,000. Yes, the NFL officials referee fewer games, but nonetheless, they lag far behind in the pay scale of professional officiating.
In contrast, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell currently makes $20 million a year, guaranteed through a 5 year contract. Yes, $100 million for 5 years. The average NFL player makes $770,000, but obviously starting players make far more, often by a factor of many multiples. The average net worth of an NFL owner is $1.4 billion. Yearly NFL revenues are currently at $10 billion a year, and are projected to rise to $25 billion in 2025. Let's just say that the pensions the referees were fighting for is the loose change found in the metaphorical couch cushions of the league.
So how did the NFL handle this demand by the referees for the league to honor the pension structure they were promised? They locked out the 120 members of the NFL Referees Association.
The lockout is becoming a favorite tool of the corporate right against workers that have the nerve to stand up for themselves. This tactic was used this summer during the height of the heat wave in New York City, when Con Ed locked out 8,000 utility workers, putting all New Yorkers at risk. Con Ed is an extremely profitable utility, taking in $13 billion in revenues a year and paying its CEO $11 million a year. Just to be clear, a lockout is not a strike, it is the employer telling the workers they may not come to work and earn a paycheck until the contract is settled. The use of replacement workers is often part and parcel of the lockout.
I watched with great alarm as the NFL locked out the referees and brought in replacement refs. By the way, where I come from, they would not be called replacement workers, they would be called scabs. As the situation hit the news, I expected outrage from the players union. In my opinion, it was the players union to whom the owners were really sending the message regarding the tenor of future negotiations. I expected outrage from the fans, particularly in states that were the focus of the recent GOP attacks on organized labor. I expected particular outrage from many of the citizens of my state, Wisconsin, where we walked through snow and slept on marble to fight for the rights of Wisconsin's public workers.
Yet there was relative silence. The players showed up to play. The fans showed up to watch. The business of the pigskin was business as usual. Yes, there was griping about the bad calls. About the possible risk to the safety of the players due to poor officiating. Nobody, however, seemed to care much about the fact that yet another group of workers in this country were being pushed around, literally shut out of their livelihood.
We cared in my house. My family didn't watch a single game during the lockout. Not one. We decided as a family that it was important to stand up for the refs, even if it was a completely and utterly symbolic gesture. Symbolic gestures can be very important when raising children. Some of my friends and acquaintances did the same, but those of us who comprised the Great Football Boycott of 2012 were definitely in the minority.
I think it's fair to say the scab refs were not exactly tier one talent. They came from Division III colleges, high school leagues, and yes, the Lingerie League. For the uninitiated, think strippers in helmets. You see, many of the competent refs in this country, from Division I college football and semi-pro leagues, supported the locked out refs and refused to cross the picket line. Finally someone who was willing to take a stand.
The muted griping continued until Green Bay Packers lost to the Seattle Seahawks due to a botched call. Then the howls of rage came. You see, the lockout finally interfered with the enjoyment of our beloved football, and our team's win/loss record was paying the price. All of the sudden, the daily papers were awash with editorials demanding an end to the lockout. The President of the United States wanted the real refs back. Even Scott Walker, one of the most anti-labor governors in the country, finally found a set of union employees he liked.
I wanted to scream.
This lockout would have been over in a day if the players, and the fans, had stood with the real referees in their quest to hold onto the pension they were promised. I realize the NFL players can no longer strike, but there are ways to express solidarity without a full strike. How about starting with a consistent public expression of support? The fans, the citizens of our great nation, could have yielded enormous power in this fight with adjustments to their viewing and purchasing habits. But they said nothing until it affected their precious football. Most fans were unwilling to give up watching just one game to stand up for a group of professionals that had little power due to their small size.
This whole debacle was very troubling to me. The bitter ironies lurked at every turn. Intensely anti-union folks in Wisconsin demanding the return of unionized employees. Union members in Wisconsin whose rights had been taken willing to cross a picket line by watching on TV. All for a pastime. A diversion. A GAME.
This scenario was yet another painful reminder of how broken and selfish our society has become. How disconnected we have become from each other. How unwilling we are to recognize that we can do much better individually by working together collectively. It is why the rich in our society have become three times richer while the non-union worker blames the unionized, the private employee blames the public servant. It is why the corporate elite have accomplished the largest transfer of wealth in our nation's history with barely a peep of protest from those whose pockets they pick. In my opinion, the nation's response to the NFL refs lockout was symptomatic of our dysfunction. We can do much better, and we HAVE to do much better if we want to see our nation survive.
The next time you hear about a labor dispute such as this, take the time to really think about what is occurring, and think about the real people who are being affected. Consider doing something, anything, to support the workers who are being bullied at the hands of a richer, more powerful adversary. Call the business and tell the management you won't be patronizing them until the workers are treated fairly. Stand up for people whose fight you have no financial stake in. The impact these actions have on our children, as my wife and I saw during the Wisconsin protests, can be extraordinary.
As a nation, we also need to take a good, brutal look at what priorities we value in our society, and recognize that many of these priorities are carefully fed to us as bread and circuses by the corporate elite. The reliance on these distractions at the expense of important societal issues helped collapse the Roman empire. Make no mistake about it, the corporate elite that runs this country count on the fact that we will value a football game more than the well-being of a group of fellow citizens. So far, they have been right.
"I been thinkin' a hell of a lot, thinkin' about our people livin' like pigs, an' the good rich lan' layin' fallow, or maybe one fella with a million acres, while a hundred thousan' good farmers is starvin'. An' I been wonderin' if all our folks got together an' yelled...'
Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939