The US women's soccer team has recently been in the news, both for a wage discrimination suit and a judge denying them the right to strike during the Rio Olympics. This is something we should be paying attention to. Here's why.
I'm generally not a sports fan. But I'm also not one of those who dismisses professional athletes as “overpaid crybabies”. The leagues they work for are hugely profitable enterprises and - along with all the other employees with whom they share an industry - they produce the massive amount of wealth generated by professional sports.
The reality is that – aside from the superstars – the life of professional athletes is not what many of us imagine. Most work for a couple years at, admittedly, a very good wage, although one that's probably not as high as you might think.
But in those couple of years, they work at a job that is physically and psychologically punishing. For many players, they pick up injuries that follow them around for a lifetime.
Add to this the fact that serious health and safety issues are consciously swept under the carpet by their employers it becomes a lot easier to see professional athletes as highly-paid wage workers.
This is not to suggest that professional athletes should be forgiven for becoming capitalists or for failing to engage in active solidarity with others in their industry. But people don't become class enemies solely because they become professional athletes.
All this is a long way of saying I think we should be paying attention to the dispute between the US women's soccer league and its players union.
On one level, it's worth noting that problems of wider society exist in professional sports. In this instance, professional soccer in America is very much a reflection of gendered wage differentials across the labor market.
For those of may not have been following the case, female soccer players in America are alleging that they get paid significantly less than their male counterparts. The US women's soccer team won last year's World Cup. They've taken gold in consecutive Olympic tournaments. They are, by any measure, significantly better - and generate more revenue - than the men's US soccer team. Despite, this some players makes four times less than their counterparts on the men's team.
In response, a number of women from the league have filed a wage discrimination complaint. In their attempt to address this, there's talk of the team striking during the Rio Olympics.
Legally, this should be no problem as their collective bargaining contract has expired and, therefore, they are no longer bound by its no-strike clause.
However, the courts have decided otherwise. The presiding judge in the matter had this to say:
“Federal law encourages courts to be liberal in their recognition and interpretation of collective bargaining agreements, so as to lessen strife and encourage congenial relations between unions and companies.”
The judge's argument basically went as follows: previous contracts had no-strike clauses and despite the fact that there is currently not an active contract, the still-active “memorandum of understanding” - basically a union recognition agreement – acts a de facto no-strike clause.
So, in the above quote, there's a lot going on that we should be aware of as labor radicals.
One, strike cycles in American are based around contract negotiations: the contract expires; the union and management try to hammer out a deal; if one can't be reached, the union may ballot for a strike as – without a contract – the union is no longer bound by the no-strike clauses that appear in, statistically speaking, effectively 100% of union contracts.
It is an incredibly dangerous precedent if union recognition can – in itself – be grounds for an employers to claim a de facto no-strike clause. Keep in mind that, in this case, there was explicitly nothing written in the memorandum about not striking. The US Soccer Federation only argued that, as they understood it, an implicit oral agreement and some supposed emails confirmed this understanding. And the judge accepted.
Second, the judge has laid bare the true intent of US labor legislation: to, as she put it, “lessen strife and encourage congenial relations” between capital and labor. This is nothing new, it's spelled out explicitly in the National Labor Relations Act that forms the basis of US labor law.
And this should be our main takeaway: labor law exists to discourage open class conflict, not only as it's written but through judicial interpretation. It's not there to help us. It's not there to protect us. It's there to facilitate the smooth functioning of the economy.
I hope the women of the US soccer team find the courage to challenge that by taking action outside of official union channels. But for us who are organizing in our own workplaces, we can at least go into our organizing efforts already having an understanding of the true purpose and intent of the law.