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Original Issue

More Perfect Unions

Athletes are having success at the bargaining table. Is there a lesson there for organized labor at large?

NOT UNLIKE A mixed martial arts fight, the conference call on Nov. 30 in which six UFC stars spoke about their plans to launch a fighters' association was chaotic, combative and full of trash talk. But get past the overcooked language—they called UFC an "egregious, predatory monopoly"—and the fighters' goal of being more fairly compensated for their blood and sweat deserves real consideration.

In July the entertainment management company WWE-IMG purchased UFC for about $4 billion. Fighters estimate that they receive only 8% of gross revenues. Shouldn't labor's slice of the financial pie be a lot more generous? "Without fighters," says three-time welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, "[UFC] is only three letters of the alphabet."

The benefits of organizing could be seen hours later when MLB owners and players, once among the most bitter rivals in sports, agreed to a new five-year labor deal. Although the owners scored some major victories, such as a hard cap of $5 million per team for signing foreign-born amateurs, the players and union leader Tony Clark came out on top in areas of great importance to their side. There will be no hard salary cap, long the union's highest priority. Reducing draft-pick compensation for free-agent signings will encourage more player movement. The players will receive four additional days off. And there will be no international draft.

The NBA's CBA doesn't expire until 2021, but either side can opt out by Dec. 15, and already there are signs that this negotiation, will also break favorably for labor. Under the leadership of executive director Michele Roberts—who has a far better relationship with commissioner Adam Silver than her feckless predecessor, Billy Hunter, did with David Stern—the players are expected to improve on the current approximate 50-50 split of Basketball Related Income. Even a modest improvement will mean a lot more money due to the league's $24 billion television contract with ESPN and Turner that kicked in this season.

Yet while sports unions have been able to gain concessions from management, organized labor across the U.S. has been losing ground. Fifty years ago nearly one in three American workers was in a union. Today it's around 11%, and lower still in the public sector. Unions have been diminished by everything from legislation to Supreme Court decisions to a passive National Labor Relations Board. And despite the support Donald Trump received from blue-collar workers, it's hard to see improvements coming under a president who favors deregulation and whose own hotels have battled fiercely with organized labor.

So why are sports unions succeeding in the same climate? First, the dynamics and labor economics are different from those in other industries. MLB players, for instance, have options and leverage that auto workers don't. "There's a reason why sports unions are some of the most powerful unions in the world," says Scott Rosner, a sports business professor at Penn's Wharton School. "A whole industry shuts down if there's a work stoppage."

Despite those differences there are plenty of ways sports can be a reminder of the virtues of a union for other, more conventional industries. There is strength in solidarity. Large victories are the eventual result of previously won, often minor, concessions. And policies that would otherwise be held up to antitrust scrutiny—like a wage scale—are exempt because they're the product of collective bargaining.

Maybe more basically, sports show that it's possible to organize even the most diverse workforces. Consider the NBA. The interests of, say, Steph Curry are much different from the interests of a rank-and-file veteran, which are different from the interests of a rookie. Yet individual concerns are overcome by the power of a united front.

In part for this reason, it will be interesting to see whether the athletes in the (fiercely) individual sport of ultimate fighting can enjoy the success of their colleagues in team sports. The outcome will depend on their ability to band, and stay, together. UFC will argue that fighters are independent contractors—by definition not employees—and thus can't negotiate as a union.

But like their counterparts in other sports, the fighters' increasing popularity, marketability and skill sets give them leverage that previous UFC generations may have lacked. A victory for labor here could lead to a set number of guaranteed bouts per year, better medical benefits in a dangerous sport and, above all, a far more equitable split of the revenue. The implications could extend far beyond the eight-sided cage as well. If a bunch of fighters spread across the country can unionize, other loosely connected groups of workers may be inspired to do the same.

The fight, in other words, is only just beginning.

There's plenty of ways sports can display a union's virtues for more conventional industries.




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