U.S. Olympic Athletes Set Sights on Organizing a Union

United States Olympians are upping their unionization efforts in wake of the USA Gymnastics sexual assault scandal.

Good morning. It’s Tuesday, March 5, and welcome to “The Labor Beat,” your weekly breakdown of the biggest stories from the world of collective bargaining and labor disputes in sports. Send tips, exclusives, or suggestions to [email protected]. Follow us on Twitter at @grandstcentral and @al_neal_stl.

U.S. Olympic Athletes Set Sights on Organizing a Union

In a meeting of the Athletes Advisory Council (AAC) last week, newly minted United States Olympic Committee (USOC) CEO Sarah Hirshland sat opposite former Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) union chief Donald Fehr. Fehr was invited by the council to advise and answer questions on the next steps athletes would need to take in order to form a union.

Olympic athletes believe unionization is the only option left to gain a seat at the bargaining table, create transparency within the corporate structure of the USOC, increase athlete input and control in a decision-making process from which they’ve been shut out, and, above all, expand and enforce athletes’ rights and protections.

“Just having him here, it lends a different level of credibility,” said Han Xiao, a former table tennis athlete and chairman of the AAC, to the Journal. “It recognizes that [athlete] leadership is serious.”

Why It Matters

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As the fallout from the Nassar-USA Gymnastics sexual assault scandal continues, a damning revelation which led USA Gymnastics to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Olympic athletes, in fact, all “amateur” athletes were left with the realization that nothing would change unless they fought for it.

Globally, athletes have successfully organized independent associations that have benefited their respective sports and leveled the playing field at the bargaining table. So why hasn’t that been the case for Olympic athletes?

Sadly, under current federal labor law, most Olympic and amateur athletes are considered “independent contractors” and not “direct employees.” That classification strips them of their protected rights to organize. But, as we have seen with the successful Fight for 15 movement spearheaded by fast food workers, and other non-traditional worker movements, just because you don’t have a formal union doesn’t mean you can’t act like one.

From UFC fighters organizing, to NCAA student-athletes fighting for union rights, the push for equity and fairness at all levels of sports is a cause we should all get behind. There is no reason to wait for another scandal or tragedy to occur before something finally changes.

Solidarity with New Era Workers

Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle and his wife Eireann Dolan were the first to bring attention to a labor issue over at New Era, the official manufacturer of MLB caps. In a far too common business move, New Era executives decided to close their plant in Derby, New York, eliminating 219 union jobs, leaving many residents wondering after 40 years in Derby, what the hell kind of company has New Era become?

The MLBPA, thanks to Doolittle and Dolan, released a statement saying the union stands with the workers at the Derby plant.

“The MLBPA urges New Era to reconsider its decision, which will cause economic harm not just to the dedicated workers who manufacture the caps and to their families, but also to the town of Derby, which has supported the company for nearly 60 years. It has always been a source of great pride for players to wear the highest-quality, union-made caps produced by the New Era workers in Derby,” read the MLBPA statement.

The New Era workers, represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) reached a settlement with the company, and under the terms of the severance package, employees will receive one week of salary for every year of service, up to 26 weeks.

“It was disappointing to us that a company that is extremely profitable like New Era wasn’t willing to do more for its workers,” CWA New York area director Debora Hayes said. “CWA feels these employees have committed their lives and their careers to make New Era a success over the years, and I don’t understand why a company as profitable as it is couldn’t go a little bit further with the settlements.”

Why It Matters  

Baseball and labor unions are as American as apple pie. Organized labor built this country, and baseball gave workers a pastime to enjoy after their shifts. With this corporate move, hard-working employees will be left starting over in an economy where manufacturing jobs are scarce, if not already almost extinct. Just think about them before buying a new ball cap. No reason your well-made, durable, long-lasting union cap can’t stick around for a few more seasons.

In Memoriam

National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) founder and Detroit Red Wings forward Ted Lindsay died yesterday at the age of 93. Lindsay and Doug Harvey of the Montreal Canadiens organized the union in 1957 after the league had refused to release pension plan financial information.

League bosses engaged in heavy union busting by trading away players who were involved with the organizing drive or sending them back down to the minors. After the players reached an out-of-court settlement with the league, the union disbanded and wouldn’t be re-formed until 1967.

Lindsay coached the Red Wings for two seasons from 1979 to 1981. Back in 1947, Lindsay led the league in goals with 33, and during his 1,068-game career, he stacked up 379 goals, 427 assists, 851 points, and 1,808 penalty minutes.

In 2010, the NHLPA renamed its version of the Most Valuable Player award after Lindsay. Rest in peace, hockey rebel.

Al Neal
Al Nealhttp://www.peoplesworld.org
Al Neal is an award-winning columnist at Grandstand Central writing on politics, labor relations, and the general rabble-rousing in professional sports. He spent a decade working in the trade union movement with various locals across the country and currently serves as Dir. of Education and Advocacy for the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society.


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