What NFL Officials Can Teach The American Labor Movement

September 29, 2012, 9:59 PM

When the Lions take the field this afternoon against the Minnesota Vikings, it’s likely the biggest pre-game cheer will be for the officials. 

It seems everyone is happy to see the regular NFL officials return following the lockout.

Labor disputes in sports always make for strange bedfellows. Apologists for multi-billion dollar corporations start caterwauling about the “unfairness” of NFL officials making six-figure salaries and demanding defined-benefit pensions when there are starving children in China. Meanwhile, union backers start talking about paying what the market demands.

Every wannabe Walter Reuther sounds like Ayn Rand while folks like William Clay Ford, Sr. grumble about the opulent salaries of zebra-striped “haves.”

But that’s all behind us now. With the lockout mercifully over, football fans can look forward to an NFL where officials are reasonably competent but anonymous facilitators of a game not usually played in underwear. No more 27-yard penalties, or extra time outs, or imaginary game-winning touchdown catches on Monday Night Football.

The officials won this dispute because their replacements proved to be an inferior alternative to the regulars. To borrow a term from baseball sabermetrics, their Value Over Replacement Officials (call it VORO) is greater than the additional $3.3 million (or $103,125/year per team) the officials extracted from the NFL.

Shortly before the lockout was resolved, economist Andrew Zimbalist--famed for providing sound advice on the real economic value of stadia that is summarily ignored by local governments--offered exactly that argument to the USA Today.

“These are extraordinarily skilled people who are doing a job that is very demanding and even a little bit dangerous,” Zimbalist told the blue ball daily. “The notion that these guys are considered part-time employees rather than people who need to stay in shape year-round and they need to study and learn and be trained about the new rules and regulations and be concerned about illegal hits and player safety, that salary range [$80,000-$140,000] strikes me as on the low side.”

Here in Detroit, the heart and soul of the American labor movement, we should take note.

There’s a lesson for the labor movement: Define the economic value of your members over available non-union alternatives.

That’s an easy thing to do when, like professional athletes and officials, your work is broadcast to millions of people. Back in 1995, it was obvious that Ken Griffey, Jr. and Cal Ripken were worth their price compared to replacement dreck like Pete Rose, Jr. and an over-the-hill Oil Can Boyd.

Defining value is an achievable goal for many “ordinary” unions as well. The labor debate is often a one-dimensional balance sheet thing, but it shouldn’t be that simple.

Hire some half-wit to paint your dining room for a song and tell me if that was a better deal than a high-priced professional painter.

Professional non-union organizations like the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and the American Institute of Architects already provide members with that kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, as do many trade unions.

The Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters members, for example, undergo a four-year apprenticeship program to earn their union card. Hire a union carpenter, the MRCC argues, and you know you’re getting a competent craftsman.

I can’t help but wonder if the education reform debate would have taken a different direction if teachers unions had, 25 years ago, responded to calls for merit pay and performance standards with their own standards—standards the vast majority of dedicated and talented rank-and-file teachers would be comfortable with.

Frankly, I can think of one ex-teacher currently running for Congress who should have been drummed out of the classroom much sooner rather than protected by collectively bargained work rules. I think most teachers would agree.

Teachers, always the whipping boy of labor, are an obvious example. But this argument could extend to most professional unions—the trades, police, firemen, airplane mechanics, etc.

Unions that can make a credible case that their members are a superior value to the alternative, will win labor disputes more often than not.

What’s more, shifting the labor debate to a question of value might be an effective way to tackle the growing chasm between worker/executive pay. In 1980, CEOs at top companies made 40 times as much as the average worker—it’s always good to be boss—but today they make 380 times the average worker.

Does your CEO provide 380 times the value to your enterprise as your average employee? It’s a question responsible boards of directors should, but probably doesn’t, ask every day.

Consider again the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell reportedly makes a $12 million annual salary. Does he really provide the league an additional $11 million worth of value over the best candidate willing to work for $1 million?

My guess is probably not. Whenever someone like Deadspin’s Drew Magary criticizes Goodell's handling of the officials' lockout, the commissioner's defenders argue he's just doing what the owners want. Surely, a $500/hour corporate attorney is more than capable of serving as Jerry Jones, Mike Brown, and Robert Craft’s Mr. Smithers.

Just as the officials proved their value to the league, they also proved the lack of value provided by its commissioner.

Life is a value proposition. When you consider a generation’s worth of wage stagnation against ever rising productivity, many American workers are obviously providing more value to their employers than their employers provide to workers.

If we want to change that dynamic, labor needs to stop asking for a raise because it’s fair or because the boss can afford it. Labor needs to ask--check that, demand--a raise, because as a point of quantifiable fact, they’re worth it.

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