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Labor Unions in Sports

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Labor Unions in Sports
Willie C Williams
Webster University

Labor Unions in Sports
Labor unions can trace its roots to the mid-19th century during the industrial revolution. Around the end of the Civil War national unions began to form beginning with the American Federation of Labor in 1886. These unions were created to protect and collectively bargain with employers on things such as wages, benefits, and working conditions for its members. Prior to labor unions, employee rights were nonexistent. Unions progressively began to get stronger and stronger through passed legislation and also through the increased amount of participation. In 1954 union membership hit an all-time high 35% of overall employees in America. Since the passing of bills such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1991 union participation as steadily declined. These Acts gave greater protection to employees and therefore nullifying the need for unions. The one place were unions are thriving is in the world of professional sports. Currently National Football League (NFL, and Major League Baseball (MLB) have player unions and each one has worked to help create better opportunities for players in their prospective leagues.
Major league baseball players were the first players to organize as a union. In 1965 several baseball players hired Marvin Miller, a respected economist from United Steelworkers Association to mold the players into a union. Mr. Miller helped the players negotiate their first ever collective bargaining agreement in 1968. This agreement led to an increase in players’ salaries for the first time in 20 years. The union soon won players’ rights to arbitration and then eventually their free agency rights, given them the opportunity to have teams bid on them for players’ services. The creation of free agency began the boom of players’ salaries. The players’ union also filed collusion charges against the owner’s of Major League Baseball teams in 1987. The owners were found guilty of trying to collectively thwart the free agency system by not signing other teams’ players. The owners were found guilty an additional two times in separate collusion cases. The players were awarded an over $300 million in settlement payments for the players. Baseball players average salaries were over $3.2 million in 2012; players have a pension plan, and are probably the most successful of all the major sports unions.
In 1956 a group of players got together and requested per diem, a minimum salary of $5000 per year, owners had to pay for equipment and the continued payment of salaries to players that were injured. This began the creation of the professional football players union. In 1968 after a brief player strike and owner lock out the NFL’s first collective bargaining agreement was signed. This first collective bargaining agreement included an increase in minimum salaries and pension payments for the players. In 1976 the courts and the National Labor Review Board ruled in favor of the players in a case for the players’ free agency rights. The fight in court took over three years to complete and even though the players won, the union support was decreased. Less than 50% of the players were paying union dues during this time frame. The NFL players’ union began to gain strength in the 1990’s thanks to a series of legal win in the late 1980’s. Those victories led to the union signing a monumental collective bargaining agreement in 1993. This agreement gave the players free agency rights and guaranteed the players a guaranteed percentage of gross revenue. The NFL and its players have the longest tenure of work without labor stoppages amongst the four other leagues. The players earn on average $1.9 million per year and NFL is by far the most popular sport in North America. They have established pension plans, licensing agreements and have made great strides in player safety. All of this would not have been possible without the unions.
Without the unions the players would not have as many rights and would not be making as much money as they are today. Today less than 8% of the workforce is unionized, yet the unions in North American professional sports have close to 100% representation. The pro sports unions have fought to give players pensions, increase salaries, guarantee revenues and have also fought for player safety. The players unions have been so successful the leagues referees have started unions hoping to achieve the same success of the players unions.
Associated Press. (n.d.). MLB. Retrieved 07 18, 2013, from
Major League Basball. (n.d.). MLBPA Info. Retrieved 07 18, 2013, from
NFL Players Associoation. (n.d.). NFL Players Association History. Retrieved 07 18, 2013, from NFL Players Association:

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