As many union members celebrate the start of another NFL season, some may not be aware that they are also cheering for their union brothers taking the field. Despite the high-profile occupations of its members, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) is an AFLCIO affiliate union just like the SIU and dozens of others.
The NFLPA was formed in 1956, and represents both former and current NFL players. Since its inception, the union has fought against the league’s owners over many issues that ring true for all union members, including clean, safe uniforms and equipment; a minimum wage; health insurance; and even direct deposit.
“The locker room is a workplace, the football field is a workplace,” said the NFLPA’s Public Policy Counsel Joe Briggs, explaining the many similarities between the NFLPA and other unions.
“Each of the 32 teams has a player representative, or shop steward,” he added during a July 19 gathering at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C.
According to a video produced by the NFLPA, “Winning in this sport takes more than toughness on the field – it takes a union.” And the history of the NFL supports that claim, as the sport Americans know and love would look vastly different if not for the influence of the NFLPA. A league minimum wage, free agency, and even the ability for fans to purchase a player’s jersey all came to fruition through contract negotiations between the league and the NFLPA.
In modern times, the NFLPA has fought for member benefits that are commonplace for much smaller shops. “In 2011, only 10 teams paid players via direct deposit. The rest of the league could hand players checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars every Sunday,” remarked Briggs, who added the union won that initiative.
While workplace safety is critical for every union member, the NFLPA has always had to fight an uphill battle against the league to have their concerns recognized and heard, Briggs said. As part of the very first negotiations, the NFLPA’s first president, John Mackey, had three demands.
“In the first round of bargaining, the guys wanted three things: clean uniforms, a $5,000 minimum wage, and injury insurance. All three requests were denied by the league,” said Briggs.
Eventually the league and the union would work together to make the game safer – and more profitable – for members and owners alike. Sixty years later, the game has seen many improvements to player safety, due in large part to the NFLPA fighting tirelessly for their members.
As part of the NFLPA’s most recent contract renegotiation in 2011, an agreement was reached with the league to remove “two-a-day” practices, and limit the number of full-pad practices to 14 times a season. These changes were in response to the growing concerns of the players in relation to the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) cause by concussions.
The NFL may have a league average salary that leaves many union members green with envy, but the football players who take the field on Sundays are nevertheless union-made. Their workplace struggles mirror many who fight for workers’ rights every day, and their success stands as a shining example of what can be accomplished thanks to collective bargaining.
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