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Labor411: Unions and the NFL

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by Guest Post on
Sep 25, 2015

Football has long been America’s most popular sport, with millions of fans following the action every week. Before becoming the king of the sports world, football had a long history of unfair wages and poor labor conditions. Here are some key facts about what happened on the picket lines before union players dominated on the field:

1956: The National Football League Players Association is founded

Creighton Miller, former college football star and attorney, agrees to help organize a union to bargain for fair wages. The NFLPA is formally granted union status by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 1970 with John Mackey serving as the union’s first president.

1982:  Strike brings NFL games to a halt

With no sign of a contract renewal, the NFLPA is left with no choice but to strike. The 57-day action, launched on September 21, comes to an end with the ratification of a new five-year contract that returns lost salary to the players and includes important upgrades to benefits and health coverage.

1987: Owners fumble, hire replacement players to take the field

NFL owners refuse to negotiate another contract at the end of 1987, instead hiring replacement players to play in place of the striking professionals. One of the darkest years in NFL history, fans ridicule the substitute players of their beloved teams, calling them names like the San Francisco “Phoney-Niners” and Los Angeles “Shams.”

1993: NFLPA reasserts itself, Reggie White signs big contract as free agent

After a four-year hiatus from technically being a union, the NFLPA reasserts itself and the first true year of free agency is established. Reggie White is the crowning achievement of the new bargaining agreement, signing with the Green Bay Packers for $17 million over four years.

2012: NFL refs go on strike, replaced by duds

It’s not just the players who are represented on the field by a union. The boys in stripes that year were replaced with fill-ins that were highly scrutinized for making bad calls, including the infamous Fail Mary on the last play of a Green Bay-Seattle game that helped push negotiations along.

2015: NLRB rejects Northwestern football players’ bid to unionize

The novelty of a college sport petitioning to unionize recently catches the NLRB offguard. As a result, the board declines the bid of Northwestern football players to unionize, stating that it would bring disarray to labor relations across private versus public institutions. However, the NLRB does recognize that college players are employees, leaving room for future union bids

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