- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 12, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

With millions of manufacturing jobs vanishing in recent years and private-sector union membership about to be surpassed by public-sector workers, the venue of memorable American labor struggles is shifting — from the auto plants to the chalk lines.

The most-publicized showdowns no longer involve the steel industry or pit the United Auto Workers versus the Big Three. They feature professional sports leagues hit by strikes, lockouts, knockdown contract negotiations or contentious matters such as drug testing.

Though sometimes disparaged as battles between “millionaire players and billionaire owners,” labor-management conflicts in football, baseball, basketball and hockey often raise fundamental issues such as privacy, safety, professional development, retiree benefits, working conditions and revenue-sharing.

And, because these labor struggles are so visible — with the public and media following every twist and turn — they often assume a symbolic importance that transcends the given sport.

One mini-battle may be developing now, after the National Basketball Association indefinitely suspended Washington Wizards star Gilbert Arenas — and his $111 million contract — for brandishing a gun in a locker-room gambling dispute with a teammate.

But the next mega-fight looms as the National Football League and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) negotiate in coming months over a new contract. With the league guaranteed $5 billion annually in TV rights whether or not the games are played, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith worries that owners will adopt a mindset of “why play the games” — and demand major concessions.

Mr. Smith also is mindful of the broader labor-management ramifications: If despite the NFL’s profitability and the players’ celebrity status, team owners can force concessions, what’s to stop management elsewhere from targeting workers?

At a Labor and Employment Relations Association conference a few days ago in Atlanta, Mr. Smith said he’ll work closely with the AFL-CIO as the campaign develops — reflecting the stakes as well as the history. The NFLPA, the lone major sports union affiliated with the AFL-CIO, wouldn’t be a bona fide union without help decades ago from Teamsters and others who walked picket lines for the football players.

In this context, the behavior over the past 20 years of one leading sports union is striking. The Major League Baseball Players Association has been in a league of its own in inflicting damage on its members, their profession and the public.

By the late 1980s, it was obvious that something was drastically wrong in baseball. Run-of-the mill players suddenly became sluggers, decades-old records were eclipsed with regularity — all accompanied by dramatic changes in the size and proportions of players’ bodies.

This was serious stuff. Players who take steroids to boost their performance jeopardize their health. They hurt the game’s integrity. They create an uneven field for union members who play by the rules. They have prompted youngsters to emulate their behavior; some have died. They made a joke of a record book that allowed generations of fathers and sons to compare baseball players.

Rather than protect the members and their craft by tackling the problem, union officials put up defense attorneys’ shingles and created legal sideshows over chain-of-custody questions or the leaking of documents.

The irony is that while the public, clean players and sport itself have suffered, most affected are those whose privacy and rights the MLBPA was allegedly protecting. Enabled by union stonewalling, they kept ingesting dangerous substances. For naught, as it turns out. Stars such as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire have seen their legacies — and Hall of Fame prospects — diminished.

What longtime MLBPA leader Donald Fehr, who retired and now advises the National Hockey League Players’ Association, didn’t grasp was that a union should advance its members’ best interests — not pull every legal trick in the book on behalf of those who cheat. As sports unions gain prominence within the labor movement, that latter approach can wreak damage beyond the baseball diamond.

Bill Curry, legendary college football coach, former All-Pro center and early president of the NFL players union, told me in Atlanta that reducing concussions must be central in the contract negotiations. Football’s physical nature, and the fact that more than one player has perished from steroids, have highlighted safety issues, Mr. Curry said. “We had guys who died. Baseball had players who got big muscles and hit the ball farther … It didn’t exact the same toll.”

It’s worth adding that the baseball union has been run by lawyers and labor veterans, including pioneer Marvin Miller from the Steelworkers union; they focused on legal issues and on asserting workers rights against management. The football union was long led by people like Hall of Famer Gene Upshaw, who were attuned to what players endured on the field.

Lauren Rich, an MLBPA lawyer in the 1980s who regards Mr. Fehr highly, acknowledges missteps over steroids. “I think that if you go ask Don Fehr today, off the record, if the players union should have taken a different approach to the steroids problem, his answer would be yes,” she said.

Too late.

Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.

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