Thursday, February 2, 2006

Who Does the NFL Players Union Represent?

According to Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association, the answer is definitively only the active players. 

In a column today by William Rhoden in the New York Times (subscription required), Upshaw was quoted as saying, "The bottom line is, I don't work for [retired NFL football players]. They don't hire me and they can't fire me. They can complain about me all day long. They can have their opinion. But the active players have the vote. That's who pays my salary."

And while this is technically the right answer (to the extent that retired workers are not considered statutory employees under the NLRA or members of the collective bargaining unit), Upshaw is doing no favors to himself or his union in ignoring the growing concerns of retired football players over such things as pensions and death benefits. 

This is for the obvious reason that active players will someday soon (given the short duration of most NFL playing careers) be retired players themselves. And, as such, active players should, and do, care very much about how their union will treat them once they are retired.

Now, it may be argued that current players have substantially different interests than old-time football players in that they will have more lavish pensions and larger playing salaries to rely upon and, thus, will not have the same concerns that current retirees have.  But a perspective like that ignores the whole concept of what it means to be in a union.  I still remember the speech that the fictional Reuben gave in the movie Norma Rae about how Reuben's father (a union member) had a large extended family at his funeral when he died as a result of his union ties. 

In short, Upshaw's vision of his role as the head of union is technically accurate, but miserly, and short-sighted to the point of being destructive.

Hat Tip: Sam Bagenstos


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Tracked on Jan 24, 2007 5:30:18 AM


I felt like I should chime in here since I am very familiar with the extremely peculiar unions that represent professional athletes.

This issue really has two contexts -- the ordinary one where in any trade union the retirees are smaller in number than the current employees and their economic situation in retirement will not be materially different from that of the current employees once they reach retirement. In this scenario, the current employees will put political pressure on the union leadership to make sure that things are put in place to take care of them in retirement, and I would guess that this benefit will spill over to a large extent to the similarly situated already-retired folks.

But the second context is the sports player unions, which do not look much like any other type of union in most respects. In the NFL, for example, there are many times more retired players than active players (many thousands of them compared to about 1600 active players); the players retire at a very early age and have "careers" that last from one week to at most 15 years, so "retired" players still have most of an adult lifetime to pursue a second career; and the current group of active players makes salaries and has pensions in place that put them in an entirely different economic class than their early predecessors.

The bottom line is that whereas a typical union represents current employees whose interests are not terribly unlike those of their relatively smaller group of elderly retired predecessors, sports unions represent essentially young men who expect to have second careers when they are done playing and who see their interests as totally different than the relative hordes of players who retired long ago. The demographic, economic, and political differences between the two groups are so totally dissimilar that it would be very awkward for the union to represent both groups with any kind of consistent philosophy or principles, and I doubt that the current players (who are the members of the bargaining union and have the vote) would tolerate the union trading off much if any of their bargaining leverage to acquire benefits for the retired players. Upshaw is merely reflecting the will of his union membership.

So my take is that Paul's view has a lot of merit when it comes to normal trade unions representing retired workers, it doesn't make nearly as much sense in the unique context of professional athlete unions.

Posted by: Gary Roberts | Feb 2, 2006 2:10:32 PM

wat do the players union fight for

Posted by: Al | Apr 4, 2006 5:23:00 PM

Upshaw has to be the worse rep for any union in history.To claim he does not represent retired players is off the wall. Didn't they pay their union dues? Retire Upshaw ,PLEASE !!!!!

Posted by: Jim Hunt | Jun 14, 2007 2:16:06 PM

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