Thursday, September 27, 2012

Less Bread, Fewer Circuses

(Editorial cartoon by Lee Judge / The Kansas City Star (September 26, 2012) and featured at McClatchy DC.  Click on image to enlarge, and then hustle on back here.)

 Michael Hiltzig has a wonderful column up on the NFL/Replacement Officials controversy consuming the sports pages since the debacle of Moday's Seattle-Green Bay Game.  By way of disclosure, I am a Packer fan and have been my entire life.  I spent the first 22 years of my life growing up in Milwaukee, so that's a natural.  I mean, what else are you going to do when the temperature is leventy-seven below zero with a wind-chill factor of a hunnert-leventy-seven below zero?  Not going to a farmer's market after church, that's for damned sure.

But as dismayed as I was by the ending of that game, I didn't actually slip into the "we-wuz-robbed" mode.  All of the NFL teams are playing with the same amateur (a kind euphemism) officials.  It was nothing personal.  It's just that the owners have locked out the professional officials and we are left with the lower levels of wannabes from such places as The Lingerie League.  Really.  And why?  The owners locked out the regulars in a contract dispute with the officials' union for, among other things, retirement benefits.  And this is where Hiltzig's column comes in.

The one thing about the National Football League on which almost everyone agrees is that it takes its job of providing first-rate entertainment very seriously.

That could be one explanation for the league's effort to supplement the pleasure of watching two teams of superbly trained athletes compete by adding the comedy stylings of pick-up referees, capped by the spectacular fiasco of Monday night's Seattle Seahawks-Green Bay Packers game.

Or the explanation may be simply that a business collecting more than $9 billion in revenue this year sees value in sacrificing one crucial component of its success — credible and firm enforcement of the rules — merely to save about $5 million a year, or five hundredths of a percent.

That's the difference in retirement contributions between what the league wants to pay its referees and what the referees have said they'd accept. And that's one of the major sticking points in the high-profile labor dispute between the NFL and its refs that has made a mockery of the league's supposed commitment to professional on-field standards and player safety.   [Emphasis added]
 It's at this point, however, that Hiltzik makes the broader and more important point:  we should be neither shocked nor surprised by the owners' move.  We've seen it happening for years, just not when it comes to the baby-pacifier, numbing-the-masses circuses:

...But it's really about much more.

It's about employers' assault on the very concept of retirement security. It's about employers' willingness to resort to strong-arm tactics with workers, because they believe that in today's environment unions can be pushed around (they're not wrong). You ignore this labor dispute at your peril, because the same treatment is waiting for you.  ...

One major issue is the NFL's insistence on changing the retirement plan for all refs from a traditional defined-benefit plan, based on the employees' pay and years of service, to a 401(k)-style defined-contribution plan. The defined-benefit plan covering existing refs would be frozen and terminated — they'd get what they've earned so far, but no more. The referees union has already agreed to the changeover for all newly hired members but proposes to grandfather the old plan for existing refs, allowing them to continue to accrue benefits.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has argued that defined-benefit plans are a thing of the past — even he doesn't have one, he told an interviewer recently, as though financially he's in the same boat as any other league employee.

This is as pure an expression as you'll find of the race to the bottom in corporate treatment of employees. Industry's shift from defined-benefit retirement plans to 401(k) plans has helped to destroy retirement security for millions of Americans by shifting pension risk from employer to employee, exposing the latter to financial market meltdowns like those that occurred in 2000 and 2008.   [Emphasis added]

This is about union-busting and putting us in our places.  We've put up with it so far, so what do the owners have to lose?  Recent history (Wisconsin and the recall election of Walker, for example) would seem to bear their gamble out.

Unless, of course, we refuse to play this time.

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