Go, Team! Go Union!

Labor Organizing Organizing Sports


Pearl River     Finally, a reason for progressive-minded students to stay in college, whether they are learning anything in the university or not:  they can help the athletes organize a union or at least win their rights as workers!

The General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) fired a shot across the bow of the NCAA, the college sports governing body for 450,000 so-called amateur and student athletes, with an advisory memo on the employee status of players. .  Drawing from her own experience in helping write the recommendations as part of the Obama-NLRB and the Supreme Court ruling subsequently that college athletes could, and should, be allowed to be paid for use of their image and brand, she issued an advisory opinion saying that athletes were employees, not simply students, and therefore eligible to be covered under the Act and organize collectively.

Immediately, presidents and athletic directors at private colleges are undoubtedly finding management-side labor lawyers and meeting to see how to respond.  The NLRA covers private sector workers, not public workers, so big state universities like many under the NCAA may believe that they are exempt.  General Counsel Jennifer A. Abruzzo also advised that, depending on the facts in future cases, that even public-school workers might be eligible, if the NCAA is found to be a co-employer.  Proving the NCAA is a co-employer would entail finding that they were determining the terms and conditions of employment, or, in this case, of denied employment.

Are college jocks going to start tattooing pictures of Mother Jones and A. Philip Randolph on their biceps and organizing unions? Probably not.  We’re more likely to see a trickle, than a tidal wave of activity.  Northwestern University football players organized and were turned down by the Trump-NLRB, because it would destabilize labor relations.  That decision was totally bogus, because, arguably, all union organizing destabilizes labor relations.

Whether there is a wave of organizing or not, mere coverage under the Act will protect players against coercion, surveillance, and intimidation, and is valuable in and of itself.  Even if unable to organize sufficient athlete-workers to petition and vote for a union, the ability to engage in concerted activity, where two or more players could freely act with protection, and demand better food, wages, safer helmets, and more without fear of reprisal and discipline, or being “fired” as a player, meaning pushed off the team, is invaluable.

Efforts by coaches and universities right now to sent out anti-union messages would be 8a1 violations and dropping outspoken players would be an 8a3.   Furthermore, existing unions and others can stand with them and act.  During the kneeling crisis in the NFL, Local 100 United Labor Unions, successfully filed charges against Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys for threating to terminate players who kneeled.  The NLRB in the Dallas-Forth Worth regional office investigated the charges seriously and found that we had a solid prima facie case.  We only withdrew at the point that Jones walked back his threats, making the charge moot.

My reading of the General Counsel’s opinion is that she is signaling to institutions and her own regional offices that the NLRB is prepared to uphold these charges.  Athletes should understand PDQ that they now have a whole new set of rights, unknown previously.  They should also know that unions, just like Local 100 did with the millionaire players for the Cowboys, are willing and able to stand with them, assure their protection, assist their fight for justice, and, what the heck, help them organize a union, if they want to go that far.