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By Winning the Strike, NFL Owners May Lose Big

October 25, 1987|Michael Harrington | Michael Harrington's most recent book is "The Next Left" (Henry Holt).

NEW YORK — To many people, the football strike was not a "real" labor dispute. It was, they think, an exotic event pitting pseudo-workers, who were entrepreneurs in disguise, against "bosses" who were millionaires playing with expensive human toys.

That is quite wrong. Scab football is a powerful symbol of a major trend in U.S. society. The pros may be making $200,000 and up, yet their fate will weigh heavily on working stiffs getting 10% of that.

It is not just that management, and its hired gun, Jack Donlon, acted in classic anti-union fashion, setting a precedent that should appeal to all the cavemen in America's board rooms. Their refusal to let the strikers return to work immediately was a calculated exercise in humiliating the union. I am glad no one reminded Donlon about "yellow dog contracts" of the bad old days--when you had to sign away your right to join a union in order to get a job. He would probably have made it a management demand.

So what's new? Union busting and stomping strikers has a long and dishonorable history in the United States. Why make so much out of this case? Because there are signs that an owner or two has understood that, from management's long-range perspective, such vindictiveness might be stupid.

This is a debate extending back to the turn of the century. On the one hand, there were employer-militants, like Henry Clay Frick of U.S. Steel, who organized private armies to beat down strikers with guns and clubs. But there were more sophisticated capitalists, like Mark Hanna (also the Republican Party's organizational genius), who understood that an agreement between capital and labor was good for productivity and good for shrewd conservative politics.

The Hannas were realists. Sometimes--Henry Ford leaps to mind--they were also anti-unionists who wanted to win the workers away from the unions with carrots, while keeping hired thugs in reserve.

In the '30s, when the basic industries were organized over the opposition of both kinds of capitalists, it turned out that the carrot faction was smarter than it knew. As Harvard Profs. Richard Freeman and James Medoff summarize (in "What Do Unions Do?"), where workers have a "voice" to communicate with management, there is higher productivity, greater employment stability and other gains, as compared with settings where employees have to throw a rock to get the boss' attention.

But will this have any affect on professional football? Let me hazard a prediction: The teams with the greatest internal dissention during the strike, and which hire the most scabs, are likely to be much less "productive"--i.e., to win less. Every coach must know that morale is a palpable factor in sports and beating a player over the head is not good for team spirit.

Preposterous? Think back to the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike, when Ronald Reagan fired thousands of controllers.

That was the presidential signal for the current anti-union offensive. It also began a new era of using scabs and operating while there was a strike on. After the unionization of the '30s that didn't happen; after the PATCO strike it did. So it was that Trans World Airlines Inc. replaced more than 1,000 striking flight attendants a few years ago or that, earlier this year, International Paper Co. in Maine brutally fought a strike of skilled, relatively well-paid union workers, in part by importing scabs, in part by tearing a community in two. Scab football was thus a nationally televised example of the return of the Henry Frick spirit to U.S. labor relations.

But the NFL owners might ponder that PATCO precedent more carefully. Earlier this year, flight controllers--including many of the scabs who had crossed the 1981 picket lines--voted in favor of forming a new union. The reason was simple. The legitimate grievances of the 1981 strikers did not disappear when Reagan used the power of the government to crush the workers. Instead, those grievances festered. They convinced strikebreakers to become union members by 1987. If the hard-liners among the Nation Football League owners think that their troubles ended with their brilliant triumph over the hired hands, they may have another thought coming.

With the flight controllers, pressures of the job were a major issue, in 1981 and in 1987. The pros face a number of specific problems: their injury rates and short longevity, the legal peonage to a monopoly system, the issue of the pension fund.

It is, then, quite possible that the miseries that provoked the strike will continue, but under conditions of hostility and mistrust that make rational bargaining infinitely more difficult.

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