Truthdig Radio: Power in a Union
Posted on Apr 7, 2011
Mark Heisler: Oh yeah, absolutely. That was one of the hallmarks of the NBA, you know…the birth of the NBA union, was the big guys—the Tommy Heinsohns and the Bob Cousys and the Oscar Robertsons and the Elgin Baylors—they were standing up for the little guys, and that was the…tradition of the NBA union into the ’90s. And Isiah Thomas, who was castigated for just about everything, people forget he was the last of the big stars who was the president of the union, who was running it for the little guys. And then the David Falk people got in, and David Falk started putting his star clients in important positions in the union, and trying to run it for the stars. And now I think they’re kind of back to where they were—the last couple of player heads have been Derek Fisher and Michael Curry—I think they’re back to where they were. On the other hand, no matter what they were doing, when the NBA players started the union they didn’t have very much awareness of the garment workers’ union, or anything like that.
Peter Scheer: Right.
Mark Heisler: It was basically…it was basketball players taking care of basketball players.
Peter Scheer: What is the status of the labor movement, or the labor relations in sports now? There’s a lot of news with the NFL and the NBA maybe having lockout seasons, and how powerful are they still?
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Peter Scheer: I want to ask you about football, Mark, because you write in your latest column that if the NFL flew, like Icarus, too close to the sun, [NFL Commissioner Roger] Goodell would just have the orb moved. The NFL is wildly successful, and you say the players’ union there has also been really successful. And at the same time you have this stuff coming out, with these head injuries, guys in their 40s getting Alzheimer’s, you know, the less famous people—they don’t have guaranteed contracts, they have—it’s not like the NBA, where they can make a few million and retire. You know, what’s wrong there, what’s…?
Mark Heisler: Well, there’s a very different dynamic in each sport about the relative strength of the union. The NFL union, although it has managed to exist and still is a force, is not very strong vis-à-vis the owner. The owner—the NFL is a sport in which the owners have always dominated. And for…the evidence is just…the things you just mentioned, especially guaranteed contracts. And they have a hard cap, you know…they have the most owner-friendly system of the American professional sports leagues. The NBA—it’s a pretty even contest between management and the union. The management tends to think that it has the upper hand in it, and they’re all saying that they think that the union is going to fold. There’s only been one test, and the union held right up until January and the drop-dead date, and then both sides made concessions and made a deal. So that’s kind of an ongoing contest. In baseball, the union is extremely powerful. Having…they’ve had a lot of tests, I forget how many stoppages, four or five. And of course in  they burned the World Series and really, essentially, taught the owners a lesson. And the owners have never really challenged them since. That’s why there’s a completely player-friendly system now; there’s no salary cap whatsoever; there’s minor restrictions about, you know, luxury tax. But what baseball has done is…they’ve done a very good job of redistributing income, you know, with a revenue sharing plan, so that everybody’s making money. Now the one thing that the NBA owners have not done is…they claim…they’re talking about a $400 million operating loss, and I think it’s completely wrong. I think they’re tossing non-operating expenditures in there, like debt service. And I think the real number is the one that Forbes comes out with, and Forbes’ figure for last season was…plus $150 million profit, except that most of it went to about five teams, and I think they had 12 teams making money and 18 teams losing by the end of it. I think the way it really breaks down is like five or six teams making almost all the real money, and about 10 of them lose a lot.
Peter Scheer: Well, I guess the moral of the story is that even when the laborers are millionaires, you can’t trust management, right, Josh?
Josh Scheer: Yeah. And thank you, Mark, and again, we’ll continue this discussion because I’m sure this won’t go anywhere.
Peter Scheer: All right. That’s Mark Heisler joining us to talk about sports. Thanks, Mark.
Mark Heisler: My pleasure.
Peter Scheer: This is Peter Scheer with Kasia Anderson, and we’re joined by Bill Boyarsky and Jim Mamer as part of this special, national broadcast on the theme of labor. Their two pieces are “Flunking Teachers Gives the Ruling Class a Pass,” by Bill Boyarsky, and “Time for a Little Education,” by Jim Mamer.
Kasia Anderson: And Jim—this is Kasia—I wanted to ask you, just by way of kicking off here … we can’t say your exact quotation on the radio here, but I’ll paraphrase. You say, “I’m a retired teacher, and I’m ticked off.” That’s what opens your piece. Do you want to give us an idea of what got you going there?
Jim Mamer: You mean … I’m not ticked off all the time.
Kasia Anderson: No, right, right. Yeah, very good-natured individual, but in this case, you make an exception.
Jim Mamer: You know, it’s been pretty obvious over a while, but the economic problems and the debt crisis in general, and complex problems in education have seemed to be reduced to an attack on government workers, and teachers in particular. So it is kind of offensive to be offered bumper-sticker solutions to everything. And I guess in this case it’s “fire bad teachers.”
Peter Scheer: Bill, on this note, you start your column by saying “With all the evil people in the world, why are public school teachers being villainized, and how did they attract such powerful enemies?” And you’ve gone out in the field to look into this question. What did you find?
Bill Boyarsky: I found that there’s people who are in favor of so-called education reform that tend to be business people, such as—forward-looking business people such as Bill Gates at Microsoft, Arne Duncan, the secretary of education in the Obama administration. And then a lot of investors, hedge-fund investors and other investors in charter schools, which are basically government-financed, privately operated schools, that are, in a sense, privatizing the … public schools. So there’s an economic motive, and then there’s a strong ideological motive, this sort of business “if I could just get in there with this enterprise, and clean it up, and fire all the incompetents, and cut down the workforce, everything would be fine.”
Kasia Anderson: Yeah, you’ve made the comparison to basically like corporate raiders, right? Where they just come in and sweep through the place and fire everyone right and left, and try to restructure.
Bill Boyarsky: Right. Right, Kasia, with the know-it-all CEO coming in, you know, with all of the answers, to what is an extremely complex situation.
Peter Scheer: Jim, you’re not just a teacher—or I should say a retired teacher—but you were a great teacher. You won a national award for your teaching. And I want to know why, as other groups like the police and firemen are able to say “Hey, if you don’t treat us right you’re going to, what, have crime and danger and …” you know, why is it with teachers we’re able to say, “Your kids are going to end up dumb if you don’t hire good teachers.” We want to be competitive in the world, so we’re going to take it out on teachers; we’re going to have fewer teachers who are going to be less well paid. I mean, isn’t this a recipe for disaster?
Jim Mamer: Oh, it’s definitely a recipe for disaster. I’m not sure that the police and the firefighters are actually as immune to those attacks as that sounds. But in terms of teachers, I think there’s two contradictory messages that are being sent out at the same time. And one of them, obviously, we talked about, is that teacher unions are the major obstacle to effective reform; I’ve never thought teachers’ unions should be primarily about reform anyway. I mean, teacher unions are there to protect teachers. But they’re being cast as the main reason we don’t have reform, and you end up at the same time with this—especially from the Obama administration, and I suspect almost every officeholder—saying we need more teachers; we’ve got the baby boom retiring, and we need good teachers, and this is a great job. There was an article this morning in the L.A. Times talking about the same thing. The fact that the number of people who are entering the teaching profession has fallen—I think this is just about the state of California—by 29 percent in the last couple of years. So you—we’ve really got a problem coming up. You can’t attack teachers, attack their pensions, attack virtually everything they’re doing in the classroom, and also call for more people to want to be teachers. And yeah, I think we’re headed to … in a real bad direction.
Kasia Anderson: Bill, I wanted to ask you, from your column—one of the things I love the most about your writing is that you actually go out on the street and into institutions in various parts of society and you talk to people. It’s, you know, Basic Reporting 101, but seems like it’s lacking these days. You went to a couple of different places and talked to people about your most recent piece. What did you find, kind of out there in the world?
Bill Boyarsky: Well, I went to a new high school in Los Angeles, the Robert Kennedy educational complex; it’s built on the site of the old Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. And there are six small high schools on this site, and they, some of them, specialize in music or theater or just basic high school. The one I visited was run by the UCLA School of Education and the Los Angeles School District, and it was … a general high school. And it’s also, these high schools—they’re called pilot schools—they’re also deeply involved in the teachers’ union. The teachers’ union helps shape the high school, as do the faculty and the administrators on the site. I found that they conduct themselves in a way that’s really contrary to what the so-called reformers believe in, which is—you know, they believe in testing, testing of students; comparison of the test scores of one teacher with another, and all of that. And they [the RFK schools] have rather a long and complex system of evaluation of teachers by the principal, by peers, and by outside groups. And they actually look at the work product of the students and the quality of the assignments, and they compare the assignments to the work product. They realize—and I agree—that, you know, teachers should be evaluated, and done in a systematic way. And that if a teacher isn’t cutting it, the teacher should go. The teachers at this school, under their union contract, they sign one-year contracts. And if they’re not making it at the end of the year, then they’re not picked up the following year. They have to go somewhere else. And so there is a system of evaluation, and there are standards. But it’s one that reflects the realities of the classroom, and that’s what impressed me. I was also impressed by just walking around the campus and looking at how such a large school, which could be like a lot of big-city schools—you know, this inhuman fortress—was really made into an open and pleasant place.
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