Chicago’s History of Unionization Culminates in Student-Athlete Entitlement

Parasites are, by their very nature and definition, detrimental to living things. Their non-mutual relationship means that they survive at the expense of their host organism, and unlike mutual symbiosis, which is the beneficial co-dependence of two species on one another, the benefits of parasitism are always one-way.

That being said, I’d propose this metaphor: If a particular industry is a species of organism within the financial ecosystem, labor unions are its parasites.

Disclaimer: if that statement pissed you off, don’t bother reading any further.

A few parasites aren’t always a bad thing, right? A variety of intestinal parasites are helpful and can be optimized by consuming probiotic yogurts. Parasitic worm therapy has been proposed as a natural cure for some allergies and autoimmune ailments. Likewise, early unions even served a noble purpose, which was first demonstrated in America with the Maine Indentured Servant’s and Fisherman’s Mutiny in 1636.

Very little has been written on the event, but it stands to reason that given the time period and isolation of Maine in the 17th Century, the mutiny was driven by the workers themselves and not demagogues with a political agenda. An important thing to understand here is that indentured servitude wasn’t slavery in the traditional sense, which had an element of indefinite continuity – slaves weren’t people, they were property, and property can’t earn its freedom. Indentured servitude was essentially contracted debt bondage with an expiration date, implying that an indentured lifestyle was somehow “better” than being a slave. In reality, indentured servitude was Old America’s equivalent to student loan debt, and indentured life was often very shitty.

Some employers worked their indentured servants harder than their slaves since their slaves would still be around when the servants had earned their freedom. Hollywood probably won’t depict it on screen, but imagine a group of young white men being beaten by an employer for not working hard enough while black slaves stood by as ironic onlookers. If the servant ran away, he was caught and returned. If he felt that his treatment was in violation of his contract or “civil rights” (LOL), he could take the issue to a local American court, where he would most assuredly lose. The Fisherman’s Mutiny was a response to all this, and that’s why the mutiny was the first American strike and not the second American slave revolt (a century after San Miguel de Gualdape).

Change was not forthcoming. Indentured servitude was common in the colonies, especially for young English and Germans looking for passage to (and a job in) the New World, and more often than not the contracts were simple and the employers relatively fair. Since doing away with the practice altogether wasn’t practical or even possible, collective action would have to suffice.

Indeed, collective action became the default response. There were major indentured servant strikes, plots, and protests throughout the rest of the century and well into the 1700s when, in the 1790s, Pennsylvanians (mainly in Philadelphia) started forming industry-specific unions and using them to bargain collectively. These were free men, in a now free country, choosing to collectivize their work in an effort to secure wage increases. Local businesses were so incensed by this that when the union finally struck in 1805 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took them to court, another first in American history. Spoiler Alert: the state won, and the union was labeled a conspiracy and its members fined.

Unfortunately, the growth and popularization of the labor movement inspired many people, not the least of whom being Marx and Engels, to wax eloquent about their plight and drive the common man into their ranks. England repealed their anti-union legislation in 1824, just a quarter century after passing it. Strikes in New England rose, and every industry from tailoring to milling to farming began organizing. The ten-hour day became executive order under Martin Van Buren, America’s most forgettable President (but hey, I’d rather be a forgettable President than a memorable nobody). The first teacher union materialized in Scotland in 1847, destined to make everyone’s life a living hell from thenceforth. I’m not going to continue citing major labor victories in the 19th Century, just know that there were a lot.

Concurrently, unions realized in the 19th Century that New England was an aging host and the American landscape was ripe with opportunities elsewhere. Not only that, but as the Civil War ended in America, a tremendous depression was about to start in Europe. This would spread to America at the same time that aggressive railroad expansion was causing friction between owners and workers, and the result would be a massive strike in 1877 known as the Great Upheaval.

The curious thing about this maelstrom is that it didn’t include formal labor unions at all, but rather, blue-collar individuals who were informally grouped into unionesque teams that blockaded and pillaged the railroads for a month and a half. This just goes to show you how coalescent the labor movement was, and how it doesn’t necessarily take a formal tag to induce collective mischief. It’s no surprise that a year later the Workingman’s Party voted to change its name to something more universally recognizable: Socialist Labor Party of America.

One of the most violent expressions in the Great Upheaval was in Chicago. A clash between strikers and authorities occurred when a mob of more than 10,000 rushed a squad of police officers. It’s actually a pretty thrilling story because the police, in tactical retreat mode from the seething mob, were only saved when a young boy lowered a crucial bridge for them to escape. In all, 30 strikers were killed and 100 wounded, while 13 policemen were injured.

Less than a decade later, this Chicagoan mob response manifested itself once again in the Haymarket Riot, and this time the authorities wouldn’t be so lucky. Following a labor rally that ended around 11pm, someone threw a bomb at police and all hell broke loose. When the smoke cleared, 7 cops and 4 rioters were dead. 60 other policemen and at least 50 civilians were wounded, though the civilian count isn’t known for sure because so many were afraid of being charged with the bombing and didn’t seek medical attention at local hospitals. Chicago’s violent unionism continued with the Pullman Strike, again less than a decade later, which led to the World’s Columbian Exposition (built in 1892) in Jackson Park being set on fire. For 5 days, mobs raged around the city until 14,000 troops showed up, killing 34 rioters and ending the strike.

As the 20th Century began, Chicago was poised to be the middle-American staging ground for labor activity. In 1901, a group of radical Chicago “Teamsters” broke from their union and formed a branch unto themselves. The AFL, one of Big Labor’s mother ships, was so worried about this fragmentation that they asked the new branch to rejoin their brethren and form what is now known as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (over a million members as of 2011). If these guys sound familiar, they should – they were the original Chicago mobsters and gave us the mystery of Jimmy Hoffa.

Before they rejoined, however, the Teamsters managed to get in one good strike (1902). Three years later, Chicago was the launch pad for a new union, the Industrial Workers of the World. Five years after that, in 1910, the Chicago Clothing Workers struck and won a wage increase. Another two years yielded another strike, this time by the newspapers ( there is an amusing lack of coverage on it). Then the shit hit the fan again in Chicago when a race riot broke out in 1919, which was the worst of approximately 25 conflicts to erupt that summer. The riot was considered a result of racial tensions due to the increased minority migration to Chicago and the sometimes aggressive (yet, informal and non-de jure) segregation in predominately white areas.

Significantly, the race riot in Chicago was a small turning point in race relations, which is evidenced through the executive action taken by President Woodrow Wilson and the statewide action taken by Illinois Gov. Lowden to promote more racial harmony. Although the riots themselves were blamed on racial tensions, there was a strong labor element to them as the black rioters had been ostracized from white labor unions because blacks didn’t want to join them (smart move, too…who wants to pay to work?). This meant that instead of the conflict being a “white vs. black thing,” it was white business owners vs. black laborers vs. white unionists. Even the governor opined that the whole ordeal arose out of economic forces and was merely expressed along racial lines.

A relative period of harmony in Chicago ensued. Throughout the 1920s there were no major union strikes or riots, which could also be partially ascribed to the financial well-being of the United States economy in general. Business owners used healthy surpluses to pay employees better rather than risk being taken to court, or worse, a public strike, either of which could damage their reputation or slow their production lines. However, the U.S. economy was about to demonstrate just how fragile it was in one of the most serious financial disasters in human history.

So much has been written about the Great Depression and it has been orally recorded and embodied in such detail by our grandparents’ generation that there’s no need to repeat it here. It is sufficient to point out that Chicago’s labor community quickly jumped back into the melee once it was clear there was no end in sight to the nation’s financial woes. In 1930, a gang of Chicagorillas (yeah, radical union activists had earned themselves a nickname) blew away a contractor. 1931 saw 400 relief protests take place throughout the city, and 500 more took place a year later. Another newspaper strike would occur in 1938, but not before covering the Memorial Day Massacre in 1937, which was a violent police response to Chicagoans’ participation in the nationwide Little Steel Strike.

Throughout the rest of the 20th Century, Chicago labor seemed to calm down, preferring to take fights to court rather than to the streets. The outbreak of WWII and America’s entry into it preoccupied everyone in the country from the late-30s to mid-40s, and although Chicago has always been a bastion of isolationism, even the most xenophobic middle Americans had to empathize in the fight against European Fascism. Once the war was over, returning soldiers and wartime laborers took advantage of a rejuvenated economy that reflected the same overall contentment of the 1920s, but with less Fitzgeraldan extravagance. This new era of surplus would focus on personal edification and planning for the future, whether it be through building families (demonstrated in the expansion of suburbia) or building one’s mind and experience (think Kerouac, Asimov, Bradbury).

Unfortunately, slices of this delicious pie grew disproportionately to the size of the pie itself, and labor wanted its share. Chicago had been a useful host, but newer markets offered more people, and with them, more disillusioned laborers. For instance, the first major strike in California, the Sugar Beet Strike, had occurred near the beginning of the 20th Century. A few more (some violent) strikes would occur through the Depression Era, but it wasn’t until well after the war that California made its mark on labor history with the Delano Grape Strike in 1965 (the Cesar Chavez fiasco that lasted 5 years). Today, California and New York surpass even Chicago in terms of its unionized population (with both states possessing 8 of the Top 10 most unionized cities in America).

While unions were seeking new geographies, they were also trying to find new industries to help expand membership. The barrier to this was the backlash against socialist principles in general throughout the post-war era, meaning that the unions which were already unpopular among owners were now quickly losing potential new membership to McCarthyism, bad press, and word-of-mouth.

This caused a lot of internal problems for Big Labor, and a series of splits, launches, and mergers began. A major international split occurred in 1948, and a year later the CIO expelled two member unions for their communist influences. Another year later they expelled nine more, and in 1953 the AFL expelled one of theirs for corruption. With so much pressure on smaller, individual unions, mergers began to take place. The most notable of these was the largest railroad union merger ever in 1968 (creating the United Transportation Union). In 1974, Chicago served as the launch pad for the Coalition of Labor Union Women, which was coalescence of 58 unions from 48 states.

While unions did continue to struggle against American anti-Communism, new industries offered some avenue for growth. For example, the Association of Vatican Layworkers was formed in 1985 and began petitioning for special rights for its 3,000 or so members. While it was not even recognized by the Vatican until 1993, it does demonstrate that even the most niche industry in the most niche geography can support a union.

As it turns out, even niches designed to avoid unions altogether become targets for them. Take charter schools, which were created in the early 1990s in Minnesota and today are started almost wholly in response to tenured teacher apathy and sluggish public school bureaucracy. Charter schools are publicly funded, but they are privately governed by a board and exempt from many rules and regulations, even teaching certification requirements and collective bargaining in most states. In light of declining membership in public schools, however, the biggest teacher unions in the country launched an all-out initiative recently to convince charter school teachers to join their ranks. Where did this initiative originate? You guessed it: Chicago.

It is in schools where the latest battle for union control is being waged. Ignore the teacher-centric AFT and the NEA for a moment and consider where else unionization could take place in schools.

In the 1960s, black student unions began popping up in American campuses (first in California) in response to the predominately white student government organizations. Granted, student unions are not traditional unions designed around higher wages and pension plans, but the concept is similar: collective bargaining by a student majority against the minority-owned university.

The student unions and student government organizations (or “student assembly” at places like Dartmouth and Michigan) are great examples of how a body of ownership (the university) reaches out to its body of participants (the students) and allows them to engage in an open dialogue regarding campus life. Remember, though, that these aren’t labor unions because students aren’t paid laborers. Universities grant students some political autonomy and a campus voice as their leaderships see fit, but they have absolutely no requirement to do so.

Traditionally, students expecting a university to offer anything more than a degree would be sorely disappointed. When a student enrolls in a university, he or she agrees to exchange a large amount of money now for a larger amount of money later (i.e. education as the ultimate investment). That investment is financed by public and private lenders, who have created a $1.2 trillion bubble, and the student is expected to repay those lenders in aggrandized payments. Again, if indentured servitude exists today, those servants are the people in their 20s, 30s, and even 40s with six digits of student loan debt. Enrolling in higher education is a business transaction, and it is usually paid for with a gigantic, subsidized credit card.

Students would do better to avoid this indentured servitude altogether by getting as close to a full ride as possible. Unfortunately, full scholarships are a commodity for universities, as every dollar they give is a dollar out of their pocket, and although they can write a lot of those scholarships off as donations, nothing beats charging an out-of-state student full tuition. The highest academic achievers are able to secure full tuition coverage, with some even getting free room & board. After that, partial scholarships and trustee grants are doled out to eager freshmen, but the money dries up fast.

Another group that is able to take advantage of full scholarships are college athletes. By offering their university’s athletic department valuable talent, the AD petitions for their inclusion in the scholarship system. If they’re lucky enough, student-athletes are able to pay for themselves to go to school now instead of later, and at an interest rate of 0.00. It’s really a win-win situation considering how much an out-of-state athlete would be required to pay if he didn’t have a scholarship. Just ask all the walk-ons in America’s athletic programs, who are paying to go to class and practice because they love it that much.

However, just as some indentured servants in early America were dissatisfied with their contractual agreements and decided to collectively revolt, student-athletes are beginning to think that unionization is a good idea as well….but wait, student-athletes aren’t experiencing the same indentured servitude as non-scholarship students under mountains of debt. What exactly do they want to bargain for? You’d think that a full ride would appease any student-athlete faced with a final tuition bill the size of their first mortgage.

Yet, some cry out that universities “make money” off their athletes, and the laborers responsible for those revenues should be likewise rewarded. Do universities really make that much off their athletes? You bet they do, just look at the collegiate athletics revenue and expenses from 2008…Roll Tide…but isn’t that what the athletes signed up for? If anything, the massive revenues enjoyed by athletic departments is merely compensating for the 85 full scholarships per football program, 13 full scholarships for basketball, 11.7 scholarships per baseball team (, and the additional scholarships handed out to the 20 or so other Division I sports programs in each department.

This, of course, leaves out the fact that the full scholarships given to the enrollees who excel academically, rather than athletically, will pay far greater dividends to the university during alumni giving seasons to come. Some research has shown that only a quarter of alumni actually give back to their alma mater, and unless a player goes pro, the chances of a former student-athlete donating to the university is slim compared to business and engineering majors. Who would you rather have donating to your endowment, a professional football player whose career will end before he’s 30 or a stock broker whose career and giving will take off around the same time and span another 40 years?

This is not to say that athletes don’t deserve representation. Professional athletes have forcefully demonstrated their willingness to withhold their services before, robbing us of their respective sport more than a few times and significantly hurting themselves financially by not playing.

Major athletic strikes began as early as 1972, when 82 games were cancelled over pension fund disagreements. Two more MLB strikes occurred in the 1970s, but no games were cancelled for either one. Then in 1981, the same year Reagan came out swinging against air traffic controllers, MLB decided to strike again and cancelled 713 games in the middle of the damn season. It’s worth mentioning that although I personally hate baseball, President Reagan, who had once managed the telegraph play-by-play for the Chicago Cubs, was likely not happy with this “summer of strikes,” especially with the $146 million price tag for the MLB strike alone. Two more no-cancel MLB strikes happened before the knockdown, drag-out event occurred in 1994-95, which cancelled every professional baseball game for the season (meaning no World Series winner).

Since then, baseball’s labor unions have been relatively serene. This serenity has coincided with the decline of unions in general and the decline in baseball’s viewing popularity against both football and basketball. Both of those sports have seen union-related conflict arise as recently as 2011. NHL strikes have been particularly fierce, with many games being cancelled in two seasons (1994 and 2012) and all games and the Stanley Cup being cancelled in 2004. Hell, even the 1980 Summer Olympics were boycotted, but Gary Fanelli proved that not all participants were on board with it (as is often admittedly the case in union activity).

But professional athletes are employees of the team for which they play. It’s their full-time job and it pays for their lifestyle. It’s not their part-time endeavor to pay for school (btw: sports > stripping). They have proven themselves superior to other athletes at their respective sport and position, and they have been chosen from the applicant pool with all the other worthy competitors (with the alleged chaff left out) through a “fair” and measured draft process that was created to prevent professional organizations from buying talent.

As if it should come as any surprise, Chicago threw itself once again into the fray when Northwestern University students were given the right to unionize by Peter Sung Ohr, a regional director of the federal labor powerhouse, the National Labor Relations Board. In his 24-page decision, he said that scholarship players cannot be deemed “primarily students,” and are thereby entitled to certain remunerations outside of the traditional scholarship payments. He also stated that the football players in question were “different” from other students and that they had to follow special rules that other students were not required to follow.

Although the decision from such a labor-friendly federal agency isn’t surprising, the fact that his decision holds any water is. After all, Northwestern is a private university. It’s eternally frustrating to know that private enterprise in this country is being forced to pander to its customer base. Case in point: If Chick-Fil-A wants to risk alienating its most affluent customer demographic by lobbying against it, that is the prerogative of Chick-Fil-A Inc., a privately held and family-owned company that fully understands the repercussions of its business model. Hell, they’ve been closed on Sundays since the end of WWII – I think they know what they’re doing, and if you don’t like their politics, buy your fried chicken sandwiches somewhere else.

Regarding the private vs. public issue, here’s something really messed up: publicly-funded and publicly-governed state schools like Alabama, Michigan, Texas, etc. are actually at less risk than private schools for student-athlete unionization because they are not governed by the NLRB. In fact, you can go ahead and assume that any state school in a right-to-work state (all the ones mentioned above) will laugh in the face of any student-athlete who threatens collective action because they don’t have to do shit.

But there’s something else sinister about Ohr’s eagerness to accept these student-athletes into his labor fraternity. Besides the private aspect, which should trump everything, we also have to wonder what Ohr meant when he defined these Northwestern football players as “different” from the rest of the student-athlete body. Will the basketball team be allowed to lobby collectively, given that the basketball team brings in less revenue? What about women’s soccer? The entire decision is about football players, and more specifically, scholarship football players, who are the only ones who will be allowed to vote on whether the team will be represented by the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA).

SB Nation wrote a great article on the ramifications of the Northwestern decision and pointed out that Northwestern football players will encounter a Catch-22 of sorts, since the NCAA’s strict policy on benefits will prevent them from even competing should they unionize and collectively bargain for anything extra. Also, the university might sentence itself to an embarrassing downgrade by converting its football team to a Division II program, meaning that Ohr’s ruling no longer applies. But is losing Division I revenues worth such a political statement?

Another way for universities to avoid the Ohr Mandate is to change their terms of employment, or at least the definition of a university employee. Poor ole’ Northwestern had a simple, 4-part definition of university employees that Ohr used in defining a student-athletes role in campus life, and even those were thought to be clear enough to maintain the line between student-athletes and university employees.

While Ohr’s decision is a landmark one, it remains to be seen what actually comes out of it. The right for revenue-producing players at private schools governed by the NLRB to unionize is moot if universities or the NCAA finds ways to blockade the process. It will likely take a combination of decisions, such as the Ohr Mandate and the upcoming Ed O’Bannon lawsuit, to create any sort of legal precedent capable of granting student-athletes the rights that they have in mind. Besides, who the hell even knows what they have in mind. I mean, everyone wants to get paid, and something tells me that labor attorneys are pouring a whole lot of honey into the ears of these student-athletes, promising them the world when they’re able to deliver absolutely nothing.

Maybe what American student-athletes need is a pep talk from Nick Saban. That should clear up any sense of “entitlement.”




Update since publication: Nick Saban actually made one of his notoriously vague statements regarding player unionization, and although one might interpret his views as general support for the Northwestern players union, he was really only supporting the expansion of programs and resources that help a student-athlete in building a skill set for the future. For example, he cited the $600,000 spent on personnel development programs and countless dollars spent on academic resourcing (tutors, textbooks, test prep, etc.) as evidence that the things to which student-athletes are entitled are already being offered at the University of Alabama. I highly doubt that Saban would ever advocate for the type of student-athlete advantages that a union boss or attorney would push for, which might include lobbying for a new coach or athletic director, demanding exorbitant bonuses for winning seasons or bowl victories, or striking over a prohibitive university policy.

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