A common refrain among union critics is that Americans no longer need unions—that unions were well and good for the exploited sweatshop workers of a century ago, but today’s empowered Americans need no such crutch.
With workers’ incomes falling, and with the United States leading all industrial nations in the percentage of its workers in low-wage jobs, it’s increasingly clear that today’s we need unions for many of the same reasons that the workers of 1912 did: They’re exploited and underpaid. But if it’s only the nation’s most exploited workers who need to band together, why have America’s most talented employees formed unions of their own?
Actors, writers, directors, and cinematographers all have unions. Baseball, football, and basketball players have unions. And now, ESPN.com reports, America’s track and field athletes want a union of their own as well.
The immediate grievance that has spurred the athletes to action is Rule 40 of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which prohibits Olympic athletes from advertising for non-Olympic sponsors in the days leading up to and then during the Olympic games—that is, when they are most marketable. Rather than just trying to get the IOC to change this one provision, however, the athletes have decided to form a union to win more power for themselves with the IOC on a host of issues.
Among the leaders of this effort is Olympics star Sanya Richards-Ross, who told ESPN:
I’ve seen my husband [Aaron Ross, a cornerback for the Jacksonville Jaguars], who has been in the NFL for six years, an I’ve seen what a strong players’ union does, not only for the benefit of the players but the benefit of the sport. ... There are unions in every industry because they need to have that voce, not just for financial reasons but for consideration of other things.
Scott Blackmun, the CEO of the United States Olympic Committee, expressed openness to the athletes’ initiative. While declining to comment on their specific proposal, he told ESPN, “I understand the desire and need on the part of the athletes to try and create some real estate they can sell during the 16 days they’re really at the peak of their careers, so I am sympathetic to the need and desire to do that.”
Not exactly a union-busting tirade. But then, Blackmun can’t parrot the standard talking points of most American CEOs. He can’t go after Richards-Ross and the other athletes leading the union initiative as outside agitators or cynical union bosses. He can’t because the athletes are irreplaceable. And in American labor relations today, it’s only the irreplaceable workers, paradoxically, who can unionize.
As a stream of studies has demonstrated, most organizing drives founder because management fires a number of the workers involved. (It’s illegal to fire them, but the penalties are negligible.) Just about the only workers who can unionize without fear of being fired are workers whom management can’t replace—the famous, the highly skilled. That’s why athletes and entertainers can organize and strike. Airline pilots can be replaced, but not immediately, not in large numbers. If they strike, they wreak havoc on the nation’s travel.
American management’s war on unions has already helped reduce the percentage of unionized private-sector workers from 35 percent in the middle of the last century to less than 7 percent today. One day soon, the only remaining unionized workers may be America’s most celebrated and talented employees. And the fact that even they need a union to win better compensation and safer working conditions makes it pretty clear that every other employee needs one, too.