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Labor Strife Is A Different Game In Pro Sports

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Labor Strife Is A Different Game In Pro Sports

Sports

Labor Strife Is A Different Game In Pro Sports

Labor Strife Is A Different Game In Pro Sports

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/134083540/134083521" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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As members of the NFL Players Association, Green Bay Packers share more than a state with Wisconsin's public workers. Eric Gay/AP hide caption

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Eric Gay/AP

As members of the NFL Players Association, Green Bay Packers share more than a state with Wisconsin's public workers.

Eric Gay/AP

For NFL players, the roar of the crowd is just a day at the office. But it's an unusual soundtrack for the Wisconsin statehouse, where government workers have been protesting potential cuts.

The NFL Players Association recognized the Wisconsin unions with an official declaration: "The NFLPA stands in solidarity with its organized labor brothers and sisters in Wisconsin."

Brothers? Sisters? Or are they more like distant cousins?

Placekicker Jay Feely, the union rep for the Arizona Cardinals, points to one profound difference.

"An apt analogy would be if the state of Wisconsin had massive budget surpluses and they were still asking the teachers to take these drastic cuts," he says. "The NFL right now has record revenue, they have record TV ratings, they've never been worth more, and yet they're still asking the players for a billion dollars back on the salary cap because they've deemed it that they're not making enough money."

So NFL teams are veritable spigots, and the worst-off states are sinkholes hemorrhaging money. Other differences include the salaries earned. The median NFL salary is about a million dollars; the minimum is more than $300,000. And of course, one group is composed of public employees and the other of private workers.

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The differences don't end there. Larry Kahn, a professor of labor at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, says professional athletes aren't simply well-paid laborers because they negotiate their salaries individually — unlike most union workers.

"You have just such incredible variation in the productivity of the players," Kahn says. "And also in the interests of players compared to the labor force at large."

So you might get the impression that it's an entirely apples-to-oranges — or pork-barrel-to-pigskin — comparison. But there is at least one area of significant overlap, according to Feely. Coming from Feely, a self-described fiscal conservative who appears on the Sean Hannity Show to discuss what he sees as America's burgeoning economic and educational crisis, it's somewhat surprising.

He says that the thing that the Wisconsin unions are fighting hardest for is at the core of what makes his union essential.

"I don't think you can take away collective bargaining to any union and not destroy the union, because collective bargaining is essential to what unions do," Feely says. "I support the Wisconsin unions in that respect. I think you can deal with the budget issues without trying to break the union — without trying to take away collective bargaining, which will strip them of any power at all."

The Wisconsin governor's plan to strip government workers of much of their collective bargaining power has passed the state's assembly, but it has been effectively blocked by Senate Democrats, who fled the state to forestall a vote.

That's another point of comparison. Some say the Senate Democrats don't like the game, so they've just taken their ball and left.