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Marquette King @MarquetteKing

Everybody's doing it

The AFL-CIO, IBEW, Teachers and the NFL Players Association are educating the next generation on learning the value of being union

Kris LaGrange's picture
Mar 11, 2016

Public employee union's aren't the only organizations under attached by the Conservative right. Organizations like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) funded by wealthy corporate interests like the Koch Brothers have dedicated themselves to eliminating collective bargaining and lowering wages for the poor and profits for the rich. Cops, teachers and those who work in government who have pensions and benefits find themselves under attack in jealousy messaging fueled by the ultra wealthy.  Public employee unions have been investing in ways to better communicate their values to both their own members and the general public. In the National Football League, the Players Association faces a somewhat different dilemma, yet they are using are some of the same communications tactics to mobilize their members.

In the NFL the average career of a player is 4 years.  This makes organizing the union very difficult.  Many of the players come in making large amounts of money, but will face lifelong physical ailments and issues.   Many also come in with preconceived notions about the union.  "My perception of the union was that they were just taking money out of our checks to take it, not knowing it's going to causes that look out for my best interest," said Raiders punter Marquette King.  To combat that idea, the NFL PA is going after their next class of players to let them know the advantages of being active in their union and what their union can do for them. 

The first look that new players get of the NFLPA is at the NFLPA collegiate bowl game.  This all-star game is a chance for draft eligible players to show off for scouts and an opportunity to get the players in front of the union leaders.  According to the union, "the weeklong schedule provides participants with a first-class professional experience while introducing them to the business of the National Football League." 

In the lead up to the game, the NFLPA sat down with nearly two dozen future NFL players to help enlighten and empower them in what the union does.  "The thing that hurts my spirit is when I talk to a guy, and he thinks that somehow the union is hiding something like, 'What are you doing with my dues, with my fine money?'" said Don Davis, senior director of player affairs and development for the NFLPA. "I hate just the fact that he has that sour taste in his mouth, without really understanding what's going on. Then if he says it loud enough, a rookie or a young guy is sitting next to him, and he doesn't know anything, but now those words are in his head. Then I come at [the rookie] and he's looking at me like, 'What are you talking about?' That's why we have to expose them to things like that."

Davis says that he was one of those players who had no idea what the union was about when he started.  After year 5 in the league he became active, learning about the Players Association and in year 6 was elected as his team’s player rep.  Even after he switched teams to New England Patriots, in the middle of their 2000’s dominance, he remained the team’s player rep.   

Some of the events that the players go through include exposure to NFL scouts, one-on-one coaching with former NFL players, an NFL-style mini-camp, media training, an opportunity to talk with current NFL players and an introduction to the many services the NFLPA provides its members if and when they make it to the next level. “What they don’t get in their job interview is an education about their workers’ compensation benefits, for example, and that’s something that we talk about with them this week,” NFLPA Executive Director of External Affairs George Atallah said. “They also don’t get media training from their job interview. That’s something we talk to them about this week. Those are the things that I feel really separate us from the rest.” 

For King, he was skeptical when he entered the league, but his views have changed.  "But now I have a better understanding about my job -- kind of how the business works. Players aren't really thinking about it. Players are focused on trying to be the best they can be on the field. At the end of the day, if you don't think about this stuff, then, if something happens, you'll be clueless about how to deal with it. We need to grow up a little bit more. We have to make sure we look out for our futures."

Every union hears the same things from their members.  The New York State AFL-CIO recently told union leaders on Long Island at a training that if you are not communicating with your members, you are allowing people like Becky Friedrichs to control the conversation and that puts union members and elected leaders on the defensive to defend the union instead of fight to make it stronger.

"If we can get to them earlier, we put a value ad into their mind early. We create an innate value. There is the potential of us bringing them in and letting them know even more: 'This is you, it's your union. It's only going to be as strong as you want it to be. I'm personally invested in who's next,’” Davis said.  Some unions are taking this idea head on.  The AFL-CIO, particularly the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) is creating youth caucuses across the country and has been conducting service projects and union leadership trainings over the last few months and years.   At the NYS AFL-CIO meeting on Long Island, many of the participants were young people sent by their locals to learn to how to communicate union values to a new generation of union members. Something UCOMM has been doing for over a decade.  

Brian Young contributed to this story

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