You Can’t Pay the Hospital with Your Varsity Letter: The Union Vote at Northwestern University

Stephen Herzenberg |

The controversy surrounding the effort of Northwestern University football players to form a union makes me think back to when workers at Harvard first tried to form a union in the 1970s.

At the time, Derek Bok, a well-known liberal, was Harvard president and co-author with John Dunlop (pro-labor Republican and former Ford Administration Labor Secretary) of the standard labor law textbook. Bok believed firmly in workers’ rights to form a union—”just not at Harvard.”

For more than a decade, the Harvard administration used legal delaying tactics to foil its workers’ efforts to exercise their democratic rights. For example, the university closed a Medical School personnel office, and centralized HR university-wide, so that it could win a legal argument that the union election also had to be university-wide rather than including only the group that first wanted to unionize. (Contesting the group of workers that a union election includes—the “bargaining unit”—is a standard way U.S. private employers frustrate workers who want a union.) Ultimately, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers formed in 1988 behind the slogan “We Can’t Eat Prestige.”

Fast forward now to this morning’s The New York Times story on Northwestern’s all-out campaign to stop football players from unionizing, after a legal determination that players are “employees” based on the compensation they receive (scholarships) and their obligation, in exchange, to practice for periods of time equivalent to a job.

For Americans who do not know the hurdles that workers confront if they want a union, Northwestern’s anti-union campaign offers a nice primer. Veiled threats (no more Division 1 football, maybe no new athletic center), intimidation by authority figures (the university president, the revered coach saying a union yes vote would be a “betrayal”), divisive use of those willing to speak out against a union. These are standard tactics from the American anti-union consulting firm handbook. Nothing special dreamed up just for college football players. Exactly what manufacturing workers, janitors, nursing home aides, restaurant servers, and other workers face when they try to lift their voice—as documented here.

Another former Harvard Law School professor Paul Weiler, a Canadian, was puzzled by the role of U.S. managers in workers’ decision about unionizing. He understood that management might be impacted by the union vote, just as Canadians might by the outcome of a U.S. presidential election. But, he added, that doesn’t mean Canadians can interfere or vote in the decision of U.S. citizens about who their president will be. So why does management get to interfere in workers’ choice of whether they want a union? Excellent question.

Read the Times story, and see if a sense of outrage doesn’t build at Northwestern’s interference with football players newly recognized right to unionize. The story provides a visceral reminder that, wait a minute, university administration (and employers more generally), it’s not YOUR decision. If football players concerned about the long-term damage to their brain and health want to come together to bargain for lifelong health care, that’s up to them. If players aware that universities make millions from football—and aware that most football players don’t become professionals but do enter a job market without enough good jobs for people who didn’t graduate or obtain a marketable skill—want to bargain for some of those resources, that’s up to them.

You’d like to think that universities—centers of moral leadership—would “get” an ethical issue like this. You’d also like to think they would get that this is also an issue of very practical decency. You see, you can’t pay for lifelong health care with your varsity letter any more than you can “eat prestige.”

So here’s to the courage and moral leadership of the Northwestern football players.

And here’s to Americans being reminded that unionism comes in lots of shapes and sizes.

Unionism is about “collective action” in whatever form is needed to ensure that our economy respects our basic values. And we need a lot more of it to revive economic opportunity and prosperity for working families.