Why Are the Only Effective Labor Unions in the U.S. Representing Millionaires?

Last Updated Jun 15, 2011 9:11 AM EDT

If unions are so powerful, how come the only ones that have had any success represent millionaire players in the NFL and NBA?

I can't think of a single recent U.S. labor action as effective as those by professional athletes. Right now, the NFL players have pushed the strike/lockout into its the third month. In the NBA, players and owners are engaged in a much tougher fight than the Dallas Mavericks' (yay) triumph over the Miami Heat (boo). The league's collective bargaining agreement runs out in 16 days. Owners are very nervous because they know how strong the opposition can be.

Contrast that with earlier this year when governors of many states put forward plans to strip unions of collective bargaining rights allegedly to balance the states' budgets.* Despite the huge public outcry over the issue, these plans have become law in Tennessee, Ohio and Wisconsin. When assessing how powerful unions are, remember: The only reason the Wisconsin law isn't in effect is because of a judge's ruling. Then again...
Now, about those union wages
While much has been made of the fact that public employees in 41 states have an average salary higher than that of their private sector counterparts, this too shows how weak unions are. The public sector salary only surpassed the private sector salary starting in 2002. The reason for this isn't the strength of the unions. The reason for this is the continuing decline in private sector wages.

As those crazy liberals at the Wall Street Journal pointed out: "The inflation-adjusted income of the median household--smack in the middle of the populace--fell 4.8% between 2000 and 2009." And that was during a time of overflowing (and fake) economic growth. If there was ever a moment when unions should have been able to flex their muscles, that was it.

Instead what we have seen for the last forty years is a steep and ongoing decline in the effectiveness of unions. Unions have been blamed for this nation's every economic problem despite the fact that union membership (and therefore power) has fallen off a cliff. In 2010 11.9 percent of US workers were members of unions. That's down from 20.1 percent in 1983.

Blame the workers, not management
And yet unions are supposedly why the U.S. isn't competitive. Unions were blamed for GM and Chrysler going bankrupt, despite the decades-long failure of those companies' management. In the military if an army falls apart it's the officers, not the enlisted men, who are responsible. Apparently this is reversed in the private sector.

Then there is North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, who said teachers "don't care about kids. They don't care about classrooms. They only care about their jobs and their pensions." Even if this were true (and if it is then NC's teachers are radically different from those everywhere else in the nation), Tillis is accusing the teachers of acting like most businesses. Compare this comment to the very, very diplomatic ones being made by the NFL and NBA about their unions.

Maybe this has something to do with the difference in salaries. In North Carolina the average public employee earns $50,902 a year. NBA players average $4.79 million a year, which is much better than the poor average NFL player who must get by on $2.36 million. I'm all in favor of the athletes making as much as they can. The average NFL player's career lasts only three years, mostly because of injuries. Their union continues to fight effectively for them. Now if there was only some equivalent for the rest of us.

* When asked how much money would be saved by a requirement for unions to vote annually on the right to continue representing their own members, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said, "That particular part doesn't save any."


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    Constantine von Hoffman is a freelance writer and writing coach. His work has appeared in outlets such as Harvard Business Review, NPR, Sierra magazine, Brandweek, CIO, The Boston Herald, TheStreet.com, CSO, and Boston Magazine.