Web Only / Features » October 3, 2012
Republicans Reject Unions … But Respect Union Refs?
Unbelievably, Republicans gave NFL union referees a little respect. Too bad it doesn’t extend to other unions.
Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee who backed Walker’s attempt to decimate union rights, said this at a town hall in Cincinnati: “Did you guys watch that Packer game last night? I mean, give me a break. It is time to get the real refs."
Republicans’ reaction to last week’s Monday Night Football debacle was record-breaking given their decades of hating on union workers.
After replacement refs bestowed on the Seattle Seahawks a win clearly deserved by the Green Bay Packers, GOP standard bearers Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and even Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the figurehead for GOP union-busting, called for the National Football League to restore its locked-out union refs.
Unbelievably, it’s actually the sound of Republicans giving union refs a little respect. A union worker is to Republicans what comedian Rodney Dangerfield was to his stage wife – that is, a guy who can’t get no respect. Republicans have tried to tackle union rights since they were formally granted in 1935. The GOP admires business owners, not the working men and women whose labor is essential for companies to exist. The GOP believes owners and CEOs are indispensable but working stiffs are easily replaced. That’s what the NFL did – locked out the working stiffs and replaced them. That didn’t work out so well. And the GOP big wigs, in calling for the union refs’ reinstatement, admitted it. Amazing.
Here’s how it went down. First, the billion-dollar NFL locked out its union refs to save less than $5 million a year. That’s a lockout, not a strike. That means the refs were willing to work under the terms of their old contract until they could reach a new deal. But the NFL threw a little hissy fit and refused.
Lockouts don’t seem to make much sense. Logically, an employer would despise disruption and prefer workers continuing production until there’s agreement on a new contract. But that’s when workers are seeking a larger portion of the value of what they produce: higher pay or benefits.
When employers want to slash pay and benefits, they lock out workers. Even massively profitable employers–like the NFL–do it in an attempt to take more for themselves and give less to workers.
And the key ingredient here is disrespect. They hold workers in such contempt that they think anyone can be replaced. Easily. No problem. Here’s what Ray Anderson, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said in the early days of the lockout about the value of a ref:
“You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch somebody officiate a game.”
That disrespect led directly to the Packers-Seahawks fiasco. From the outset, the replacement refs fumbled and bumbled. Coaches complained that games were out of control. Fans mocked the numerous bad calls.
Wisconsin Gov. Walker, who faced a recall over his attempts to squash the collective bargaining rights of his state’s public sector workers, Tweeted afterward:
“After catching a few hours of sleep, the Packers game is still just as painful. #Returntherealrefs”
Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee who backed Walker’s attempt to decimate union rights, said this at a town hall in Cincinnati the next day:
“Did you guys watch that Packer game last night? I mean, give me a break. It is time to get the real refs.”
GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who called National Labor Relations Board officials “stooges,” agreed, telling a CNN reporter:
“I sure would like to see some experienced referees, with NFL experience, come back to the NFL playing fields.”
Of course, the only referees with NFL experience were the locked-out union ones. The substitutes were “real refs,” despite Ryan’s derision. They were, however, unseasoned. They lacked the training and time on the NFL field that the union refs have. In addition, they didn’t have the help of union ref Ed Hochuli, who assigned himself headmaster for a lockout boot camp. He sent his 120 fellow refs five-hour tests on rules, organized weekly conference calls on regulations and distributed game tape to ensure the union refs would be prepared when the NFL ended the lock out.
The same way NFL teams choose the top-performing players they can get or an employer selects the best workers for the job, the NFL picked Hochuli and the other 120 refs. The NFL believed those 121 individuals to be unrivaled. After they were hired, the refs received training and experience on the job. The same as all workers do.
Disregarding all that, employers increasingly lock out workers. In any given year now, workers strike 83 percent less often than they did 20 years ago. But employers now lock out workers so often that this measure taken against workers accounts for a record number of work disruptions.
This is disrespect. This is disregard for the value, skill, training and quality of workers. And it’s not safe. That was an argument made by NFL players who feared they’d be hurt in games they perceived to be unruly under substitute refs. The danger of replacements is a fact.
When Con Edison locked out 8,000 utility workers in New York last summer, at least two replacement workers – both managers – were hurt. One was burned in a manhole explosion and the other in a substation fire. Utility Workers Union spokesman John Melia said trying to replace trained and experienced utility workers with managers was unwise:
“We really doubt whether you can take someone out of an office cube and put him down a flaming manhole.”
The same was true when Honeywell International locked out its uranium processing workers in Metropolis, Ill., in 2010 and replaced them with substitutes whose training to handle the highly toxic combustible and corrosive chemicals used to process uranium for nuclear fuel was questionable. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission cited Honeywell for illegally coaching replacement workers on exams. And at least two dangerous incidents occurred at the plant while substitutes worked there, including a release of hydrofluoric acid.
Maybe now that they’ve seen what happened with the replacement refs, the GOP will respect workers.
Naw. That would be too good to be true, like the NFL reversing that bad call on the Packers-Seahawks game.
Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers union is a sponsor of In These Times.
Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to In These Times magazine, or make a tax-deductible donation to fund this reporting.
Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President
Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco's nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.