Northwestern Goes Union-Busting

Tomorrow, Northwestern football players will vote on whether or not to form a union, a right given to them by a National Labor Relations Board ruling last month. NLRB rules stipulate that no meetings can be held today, the day before the vote, to decrease the risk of outside influence—which doesn't mean all those with vested interests in preventing unionization haven't already done their part to sway the players.

Here are some of the actions taken by former players, coaches, administrators, and executives, all with one goal in mind: convincing Wildcats players to vote no.

  • When players arrived for their first practice after the NLRB ruling, they were all presented with new iPads, and taken to a local bowling alley for a team party. (The university said the iPads were unrelated to the union vote.)
  • Head coach Pat Fitzgerald emailed his players warning them what would happen if they voted in unionize. They would, he wrote, "be transferring your trust from those you know" to "a third party who may or may not have the team's best interests in mind."
  • Fitzgerald followed with public comments at a press conference, saying "I believe it's in their best interests to vote no."
  • The Times reports that former QB Dan Persa is one of a number of former players who have spoken privately with current players to urge them to vote no. Persa "has been among the most vocal in urging the players to vote down the union."
  • Northwestern's president emeritus said that if players unionize, the university could end up dropping all Division I sports programs.
  • The women's fencing coach announced that a vote for unionization could mean the cancelation of his sport.
  • Northwestern's vice president for university relations released a statement saying that "a collective bargaining process at Northwestern would not advance the discussion" of college sports issues.
  • Northwestern's legal team compiled a 21-page Q&A to distribute to players and their parents. It's meant to answer their questions about forming a union, but contains multiple hyperbolic warnings about all the bad things that will happen if they vote yes. The document claims that unionized players may no longer be allowed to leave the team for family emergencies. It cites how players have "said all along that they have been treated extremely well by Northwestern University," and says the University hopes players vote no. Hilariously, it says college football reform will happen faster via unilateral NCAA decisions than by unionizing.
  • A Northwestern appeal of the NLRB ruling claims, bafflingly, that "Northwestern's scholarship student-athletes 'are not initially sought out, recruited and ultimately granted scholarships because of their athletic prowess on the football field." To that point, the Q&A distributed to players and parents claims that if they unionize, replacement players may be brought in to take their jobs in the event of a work stoppage.

All of this adds up to a group of college kids being told from all sides that they should vote no. Yesterday, a group of former players alleged that this amounts to illegal interference ahead of the vote.

"We all love our program but we have a problem that this process has been interfered with," former player Kevin Brown told CBS Sports. "We were very disturbed because it was every sort of classic union busting."

Brown also allegedthat current players have received phone calls from former players, warning them that if they vote "yes" they'll be shut out of the football alumni network and lose out on future employment opportunities.

A former NLRB general counsel told the Times pretty much the same thing about union-busting.

"It sounds like a vigorous, strenuous anti-union campaign that employers often employ when they're determined to defeat unionization efforts," said Fred Feinstein.

A Northwestern spokesperson says the university has acted within NLRB guidelines since the vote was announced.

Tomorrow's vote is, by all accounts, going to result in players saying "no" to unionization. But for all the fuss about it, this vote is small potatoes. The NLRB ruling clears the way for similar unionization efforts at other private schools, where football and basketball are much bigger business and players may feel differently toward their coaching staffs. And even without that, the NLRB national office may review the regional ruling, and could declare athletes employees. That would bring a host of changes with or without unionization. It's that ruling that ultimately matters, and it's likely to spend years wending its way through the court system before it comes down.