Leadership and Solidarity Matter in Sports Off the Field

Casper     There was a fascinating discussion recently about why professional basketball players in the National Basketball Association were able to speak freely and publicly about issues, including race and politics, while the manly men of the National Football League were constantly being cowed into silence.  The reporter for the New York Times spent a lot of time on the back and forth, pros and cons.

There are of course similarities between the two dominant professional leagues.  Both are owned by mostly conservative very rich people, so that doesn’t explain the difference.  Both have longstanding unions, so that isn’t the difference either.  Both leagues are composed of extraordinary athletes who are predominately African-American, so that doesn’t solve the puzzle either.

The reporter rested his case on the fact that the NBA had leaned more towards promoting the brand of individual players, while the NFL had focused more on teams citing the 40 million followers of LeBron James versus the 4 million followers of Tom Brady among other things.  That’s just not persuasive to me.  The NFL nationally and locally has made big whoops of the Brady’s, the Mannings, Drew Brees, and others as spokespeople for the league and the team.  It has done less for its African-American stars in my view.  The NFL has plainly been behind on race.  It isn’t a coincidence that all the players I just named are white quarterbacks.  It took decades before the NFL embraced African-Americans as quarterbacks, frequently seeing them and their style of play as unsuitable for their sport in implicit racism.

Coming off of our Local 100 leadership conference, it was hard not to see the real difference starting with leadership of the respective unions.  The reporter, John Branch, made the point that the head of the union for the NBA players was Chris Paul and that the executive board of the union looked like a future list for the Hall of Fame including James, Curry, Paul, Durant, Anthony, and others.  In the NFL, Drew Brees from the Saints has consistently been a union leader, but often its more common to see rank-and-file players in such roles and not the superstars.  This is a perfect example of a failure of leadership with the stars sending the message that they are more important that the rest of the players and that the contract and the union are something for the journeymen and not the big dogs.  The experience of leadership and understanding of the value of the union and its ability to protect them, allows them freer expressions individually where the weaker solidarity has isolated Colin Kaepernick in his NFL protests.

In team sports the value of the team itself is a constant refrain from the first time one plays ball throughout the professional ranks, but a team is about solidarity, just as a union is.  One NFL player after another in their short career speaks of their work as a business, rather than a team.  Michael Jordan during his NBA career set the same role model of me first, team whatever that dominates the NFL still.  The new leaders in the NBA have changed the culture of the sport, while the NFL has made a mockery of team proving that they need to learn something about solidarity from the basketball stars and their teams.  There’s a mountain of difference there.


How and When Did Scrooge McDuck Take Over Disneyland?

New Orleans    My dad was born and raised in Orange County, California, first in Tustin, then Santa Ana, and finally Orange itself where he lived until he finished high school. My grandfather was a foreman on an orange grove ranch until he couldn’t be, and then he worked as the janitor at the Lutheran Church, next to the parochial school that my dad, his brother and three sisters all attended at various times.  My dad used to tell us about delivering papers on his bicycle before dawn along the hills covered with orange groves that are now all occupied by one housing development after another.

We used to drive out to visit my grandparents in California every five years after we moved to New Orleans.  Of his two weeks of his vacation, we would spend three days driving out and three driving back, leaving at 4 AM in the morning to beat the humidity of the Gulf Coast and then the aridity of the desert until we arrived.  Once we went by his cousin’s carpet store to watch them build the Angels stadium in Anaheim.  We once went to Knott’s Berry Farm.  Twice we went to Disneyland.

I was shocked to read in an old copy of the New York Times that 85% of the 17,000 Disneyland unionized workers make less than $15 per hour, and that’s in California where the minimum wage is over $10 per hour, not $7.25, and on its way to $15 by 2022.  Furthermore, that’s in Orange County, not Sunflower County, Mississippi where my mother was raised.  Living costs are in another dimension in California.  The Times references a California Budget & Policy Center that calculates that a single adult would need to make $33,000 to meet a basic monthly budget, which is about $16 per hour at full-time work.  The story followed several Disney workers around as they slept in their cars, brushed their teeth at Starbucks, and tried to make it on their less than full-time shifts.

What’s going on here?

Disney is the largest employer in Orange County.  In 2017, the company made almost $9 billion in profits.  In the 3rd quarter of 2017, the parks and recreation segment of Disney, which includes Disneyland and Disneyworld in Florida, was the only major division that beat expectations with $1.2 billion operating income in that quarter alone.  No question, Disney has the money.

And, these workers have a union now and forevermore.  Walt Disney built the place union, and it was been union since it opened in California.  Even Disneyworld in Orlando is union in anti-union Florida.  The unions are organized in various trades councils where in theory every union and craft are part of the bargaining and representation from the skilled trades in maintenance to the large number of service workers in the hotels that are part of UNITE HERE.

Usually, we would think this is a great thing, but what’s gone wrong in Orange County that is allowing Disney to be Scrooge McDuck in dealing with its workers?  This should be Neverland, not Frontierland.  The Times story was triggered by a union-backed survey that indicated that 75% of the responding workers said they “do not earn enough money to pay for their basic monthly expenses, and one in 10 said that they had been homeless in the past two years.”  Clearly, we must demand that the unions stand up to Disney to force this rich company to pay living wages or make sure that visitors stop allowing their children to witness this daily hypocrisy in the name of profits.