August 24, 2007
FOOTBALL: Look For The Union Mug Shot
ESPN's Howard Bryant pens an uncommonly silly but revealing column arguing that the NFL Players Union should have put up a major fight to defend Michael Vick precisely because his conduct was, in Bryant's word, "indefensible."
Leaving aside for the moment the question of how serious Vick's conduct was and whether it ought to be a federal crime, Bryant's attitude is precisely what is wrong with many unions:
In the coming years, that will prove to be a colossal mistake. Vick deserves to go to prison, but the union's job is to defend every player's right to work.
The Major League Baseball Players Association, built and sustained by Marvin Miller, Donald Fehr and three generations of resolute players, long ago answered the question of defending the indefensible. The multiple drug abuse cases of Steve Howe, the spitting incident of Roberto Alomar and most recently the way the players association has handled much of the steroids era have served as examples of a union not finding itself on the right or popular side of an issue and at risk of damaging its public image. The rationale was this: How you fight today sets the parameters for the battles of tomorrow.
The responsibility of a union is to defend its membership -- every time, all the time, if for no other reasons than to send a dissenting vote to management that its membership always will be protected by a strong union and to alert the commissioner that his powers always will be checked by an advocate for the players. The union's message should be that a commissioner cannot simply do whatever he wants.
So the union has an understanding that it won't be blindsided by a runaway commissioner, adopting a position closer to equity shareholder than skeptical watchdog. It has labor peace and can take comfort in not worrying about losing public goodwill during contract years or losing face should its membership crack during pressurized labor negotiations. The union seems comforted that it is treated as an inside player instead of a hostile entity. But what good is maintaining the peace if it is not accompanied by power?
There are many fair arguments to be had for the pros and cons of unionizing for the purpose of better wages, benefits and working conditions. But those are general benefits, obtained by the whole union to benefit the whole union.
By contrast, when a union goes to bat for an accused or proven miscreant, or for that matter for its most incompetent or insubordinate employees or to otherwise block management's efforts to reward the better performers and weed out those who don't do the job, it is using the strength of the many to benefit the few - and indeed, to benefit those few who least deserve it. That's antithetical to the entire idea of unions as a collective effort to benefit everyone, and perversely rewards wrongdoers. And of course, it harms the business from which the union's members derive their livelihoods.
A union may think, as Don Fehr does, that you never give in to management on something management wants unless you get something in return. But that is a misunderstanding born of hubris. In fact, a union, like any other contestant in an ongoing power struggle, has only limited resources: only so much money, only so much time and attention from its leaders, lawyers and members, only so many battles it can fight without triggering an irrational response from management or draining the resources ofthe business as a whole (and thus shrinking the pie), only so many concessions it can extract. A union that prioritizes fighting for the protection of members who are criminals is expending resources that could be used to benefit members who actually stay out of trouble and do their jobs. A union that extracts concessions of that nature is failing to extract others that may be more evenly enjoyed.
Unions, especially private sector unions, have been in trouble for a while in this country, losing footholds in organizing and seeing the industries they dominate weaken. There are many reasons for this, but if there's a single characteristic of unions that is most unattractive and most gratuitously damaging to the businesses that employ them, it is the determination to go to the mat for members of the union who misbehave or don't perform at their jobs.
This is just one of the beefs we have out here with the CTA (California Teachers Association). One of their members practically has to commit rape in the classroom to get canned. I am always open to legitimate issues of safety in the workplace, compelling employees to participate in illegal activity to keep their jobs, pay and things of that nature, but the mindless march of these organizations to protect the worst of their members is shameful.
I think all unions ought to stand up for due process for their employees, whether it's the PBA after a convtroversial police shooting, the SAG in the McCarthy era, or the baseball players' union with regard to steroids. There's clearly a line between standing up for due process and protecting the guilty or incompetent, though, and unions would be well-advised to look out for it. In the specific case of Vick, I think they'd be advised to have Roger Goodell either not ban Vick beyond the terms of his sentence, or specify some codifiable reason why he is banned for longer (the gambling aspect might perhaps justify that). They should not simply allow him to be banned for life for offending PETA, when there are guys playing in the league today who have killed people (i.e. Leonard Little).
The cop-shooting example isn't really apt, since that's a case of an employee in hot water precisely for doing his job - that's a situation where not only the union but the employer as well should have an interest in defending people who get in trouble for acting in good faith within the scope of their employment in the best interests of their employer. A better example would be a cop accused of taking bribes, sleeping on the job or shaking down drug dealers.
I agree 100% about Leonard Little though.
I deal with unions; my employees are unionized; so I see it from both ends. Mostly. I deal with my employees like adults, and treat the union reps as in a reasonable manner. They basically treat me likewise, so we actually get things done. Their lookout is for their employees, make sure they get their benefits, make sure the retirement stuff is paid, it's in the contract, so I have no quibble.
Here is a what if: I manage apartments, so what if I ordered the supers to be in a boiler room shoveling coal (of course, there is no coal boiler), even though the coal was spewing out a gas that would give them early arthritis. OSHA, the unions, the press would be all over me. And rightfully so. The NFLPA and the MLBPA never ever came out for the welfare of their members, only for the wallets. The unions should be in the lead to make sure there are no steroids--it only compromises the health of their members. And the NFL mandated dangerous play on turf--the arthritis issue I mentioned.
So this lookout issue, while it does exist for my workers (although I like to think I do it too), and teachers unions (ugh!!!) look out for their members at least (meaning they really don't care much for the kids, although most teachers do), the MLBPA, among the most potent unions in the country fiddles while the players burn.
The hard part, for leadership, is defining priorities. In MLB and the NFL players are willing to trade health for the wallet, steroids, concussions etc. If your supers caught a bump in pay that enabled them to buy a bigger house, fishing boat, and pay for 4 years of college for the kids they, much like ball players, might be willing to risk the arthritis. Should the union let them?
That's a very fair question Abe. One that few have been asked I guess, in an employment form. It may impact some of the steroid question, but asks another: if some union members are enhanced, it makes it seem as though another union member, who made the choice to stay healthy longer, to be less employable. And the NFLPA should have drawn a line in the sand about turf in outdoor stadia (I love writing that instead of stadiums).
Also, steroid use violated federal law. Should the union not look out for the legal ramifications of members violating such a law?
Well said, I think we have seen how the choices are made by the individual.
To the steroid defenders, you make the best point, keeping up with the Joneses. An atrocity from a union standpoint, no?
More importantly, Mets can end the race this week. And Eli looks like a QB for the first time in 4 years.