It turns out that the professional referees in the NFL — the ones we used to love to hate but, after watching their replacements, now hate to love — are highly skilled officials, with years of experience and training. They couldn't be swapped for refs from high school conferences and the Lingerie League, not without messing up the game. Professionalism matters, and workers have specific skills that make them good at their jobs.
It was the performance of the "amateur" refs that ultimately pushed the NFL owners (otherwise known as the billionaire's club) to make a fair offer and end the months-long lockout. As the replacements' mistakes became more and more noticeable, as they became laughingstocks and safety became an issue, the abilities and the value of the regular refs only became more apparent.
In the end, it took one spectacularly bad call to get the owners back to the bargaining table. On the final play of the Seattle Seahawks-Green Bay Packers game Monday night, dueling refs signaled "interception" and "touchdown" simultaneously, costing the Packers a victory, inspiring outrage on sports pages and around office water coolers, and even making proudly anti-union Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker beg for the return of the "real refs," the members of the NFL Referees Assn.
Across the country, other frustrated professionals are on strike or locked out by their employers, who essentially tell them, "I won't allow you to work unless you accept the contract we're offering." (The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't distinguish between strikes, lockouts or mass sickouts; it only counts work stoppages.)
From the 26,000 teachers in Chicago who stopped working over issues including class size and school closings, to Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians, to the NFL refs — well-trained, experienced employees are using the last resort of the organized worker, the refusal to work.
Threats to their livelihoods are coming from all directions — wages, safe working conditions, job security, pensions and health insurance are under attack — and employers seem to have grown accustomed to the idea of a weakened labor movement. But these professionals have responded by asserting their value and demonstrating that they aren't outsourceable, interchangeable or easy to replace — they are instead highly capable and good at their jobs. Just try to live without us, they're saying.
While some virulently anti-union people suggest that unions love to call strikes, the reality is that the decision is a serious one and never taken lightly. Going on strike, or being locked out, means the loss of pay for an undetermined amount of time, and in some cases the loss of health insurance. It means the risk of permanent job loss as well as the possibility of retaliation from the employer during or after the strike.
And yet, strikes and lockouts are occurring with renewed vigor. Orchestra players know that audiences want to hear replacement musicians about as much as NFL fans wanted to see replacement players suit up in 1987. The members of the Chicago Teachers Union know that qualified, experienced educators aren't a dime a dozen. They know they have power in the labor market.
Recent events have proved them right. The Chicago teachers could not be rushed back to work without taking the time to consider whether the offered contract contained actual solutions to the previously intractable problems.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians sat out their opening concert this fall to preserve their benefits. The NFL referees refused to accept a bad contract, even with the regular season approaching. These work stoppages are a warning to employers who assume that highly educated workers and well-paid professionals won't strike. They will, they can and they do.
Professionalism matters. Not all jobs can be done by amateurs. The public knows this. But it may take a silent orchestra hall, a week without school or an embarrassing, game-changing bad call to make employers see it too.
Rebecca Givan is an assistant professor at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University.