NCAA Union Vote Opens Eyes to Rights at Work

By: Tony Speelman

April 25, 2014 was a huge day for student athletes across the country.  Northwestern football players voted in a secret ballot election on joining the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA).  What's great about this case, is the national attention it's receiving in an industry [sports] that sparingly touches on the abuses of workers' rights.   It's also educating college students on rights they have at work.

But the best thing this attention has done, is show this audience the reaction wealthy corporations (in this case the NCAA) have, when workers (football players) start to demand more from their billionaire employers.  

In their nervousness on the threat of unionization, the NCAA has used a classic "we're not so bad and greedy after all," anti-union playbook strategy, something I've seen first hand here for years.   First, the NCAA offered free food programs to all student athletes.   A proposal was passed earlier this month that NCAA President Mark Emmert said was on the table and being discussed "since last year".   This just "happened" to be passed days leading up to the Northwestern vote.  What also helped the proposal being pushed through was UCONN basketball star guard Shabazz Napier saying on national TV moments after winning the National Championship, that he would often go to bed "starving" because he didn't have enough money for food.

At UFCW Local 1500 organizing campaigns, we have seen this repeatedly.  Once employees band together and petition for a union election, companies start to straighten up their act.  At Target, in weeks leading up to the election, the company bought a brand new lunch and break room for employees (previous break room had shotty equipment and wasn't updated in years), and began having pizza parties each week for the store employees.  Even at Stop & Shop, a unionized company, last year in the days following 5,000 workers authorizing a strike, the company held Employee Appreciation Days throughout their stores, just one day prior to their contract expiring.  At the appreciation days the company bought lunch like, pizzas and Chinese food, for employees.  Ultimately Stop & Shop workers were able to negotiate a contract and avoid a work action, but  the reaction of companies is the same, union or not, when employees (or student-athletes) begin to band together and demand respect.  Workers, or in this case students, clearly have always had the power.  These quick changes clearly demonstrate the absolute fear companies have just on the threat of employees unionizing.

Second, the NCAA just announced they will offer "full cost' scholarships.  Right now student athletes do not receive scholarships that cover the full cost of attending a University.  This new change will cover all expenses on what it actually costs to attend and live at the particular school.    Another change that immediately significantly improves the lives of college athletes.  

Donald Lee, a prominent Sports Labor Attorney said, "Before Northwestern football players casted their historic votes Friday on whether to unionize, school officials acted more like executives in a commercial business, mounting a well-coordinated "vote no" campaign and using tactics designed to scare their players. This alone is proof that Northwestern is running a football business and its players are employees."

New York Times reported that Northwestern officials “have pulled out all the stops to squash the union before it is formed,” citing celebrity coaches having one-on-one meetings with players and contacting their families on NOT unionizing.  Instead of this becoming an anti-union aggressive campaign, Northwestern University and the NCAA missed a tremendous opportunity, they had a chance to educate an entire generation of students and athletes on the federal labor process, as well as the benefits that organized labor has had on our country.  

It's funny how the NCAA swiftly proposed (and approved)  two significant workplace changes when a small group of football players decided to band together to demand more.  In the threat of unionizing at Northwestern, the entire NCAA has changed.  Just by the threat.   Without the threat, and the courage to stand up for what's right, greedy companies alike will continue to take advantage of workers, students and communities.   That's why the world's largest and wealthiest employer, Walmart, receives subsidies to open stores in neighborhoods, while putting small mom & pop shops out of business.  We can't expect businesses and now, Universities, to do the right thing.  Lee also said on his disappointment in Northwestern University," But major college football isn't about teaching. It's about business, and when the labor shows unrest, management will resort to tactics such as these."  Without our labor movement's message, what kind of world would we be living in?  One where we'd all be surely taken advantage of.