March 20, 2011


The Life of a $725,000 Scab: It takes a special kind of worker to cross a union picket line. Especially one full of 250-pounders. Mark Gastineau, the New York Jets defensive end, is a management's dream. (Bill Saporito, October 26, 1987, Forbes)

A name-brand player who crossed the picket line on the strike's first day, Gastineau, 30, attracted more attention than a goal-line fumble. Players on other teams vilified him -- ''He has an IQ of about room temperature'' is how Chicago Bears defensive lineman Dan Hampton delicately put it -- and his own teammates, peers now picketers, made no effort to conceal their anger. A contest pitting a bunch of well-compensated, no-neck entertainers against a millionaire boys' club for possession of the nation's fall sporting ritual is hardly the United Auto Workers against General Motors. But it summons up many of the same issues, including the question of what makes one man walk the line and another break ranks with his fellow workers. As in any strike, the success of this one depends on the ability of the union -- the National Football League Players Association -- to instill in its members a sense of right, of shared values and goals. To do this the union must make it socially, psychologically, or -- especially in this case, perhaps -- physically uncomfortable for anyone to desert the pack. For the owners the game is simpler: Divide and conquer. By using strikebreakers they hope to destroy the players' faith in the union's ability to prevail.

A football team is a peculiar kind of labor force. It is organized labor by definition, yet its members are both more and less cohesive than many workers. The importance of the team, something drilled into each player since Pop Warner League, has a powerful hold. Many players spoke out against the strike but didn't want to cross the picket line if it meant losing the respect of their teammates.

OTHER FACTORS pull the workers apart: For one, there is an enormous disparity in wages. Similarly, while the players are striking for the same things -- higher minimum salaries, better pensions, and the freedom to shop their talents to the highest bidder -- winning would mean vastly different things to different people. Throw in the fact that most players are young, have no previous strike experience, and no strike fund to bolster them in time of need, and a betting man would be tempted to take the owners, giving a six-point spread.

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Posted by at March 20, 2011 4:54 PM

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