In calling foul against the NBA Players Union (“The NBA union, right-to-work, and an opportune moment,” February 26), my colleague Britanny Baldwin engages in some revisionist history about the NBA lockout.
Baldwin argues that the corrupt former director of the National Basketball Player’s Association (NBPA) proves her assertion that union leaders are always selfish thugs who hurt workers. But Billy Hunter’s extravagant salary and likely criminal offenses do no more to prove this point than scandalous ex-referee Tim Donaghy proves the NBA should eliminate referees.
She continues by reciting an owners’ talking point – that owners were forced to lock players out because “22 of the NBA’s 30 teams were losing money each year.” The problem is, as Deadspin’s Tommy Cragg’s showed in a 2011 investigation, NBA teams are little more than massive tax shelters for their owners, who legally write off millions each year under a 1946 IRS allowance that lets teams treat their roster athletes getting older as “depreciation,” as if they were aging livestock.
Of course, labor relations between NBA owners and players didn’t always pivot on byzantine disclaimers in U.S. tax laws. In 1957 the players won an agreement from the NBA to bargain with the NBPA. The terms of the agreement included the abolition of “whisper fines” which referees had been able to unilaterally impose, nominal per diem traveling expenses, and moving expenses for traded players. The NBPA would later win agreements from the league to guarantee that players received pensions and health insurance.
In late 2011, the union was able to successfully negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, ending a five-month lockout imposed by the owners and thereby avoiding their hard salary cap and 40 percent pay cut. Throughout this process, the NBPA didn’t “nearly dissolve” — it decertified on Nov. 14, as is typical when players’ unions are locked out by billionaire owners. These aren’t partisan points, they’re simple facts. Yet Baldwin claims this makes the players “subservient” and “too dependent” on a union that fought on their behalf to preserve their hard-earned pay and benefits.
It’s clear from the contentious last decade of labor relations in American professional sports that players need unions, because without them, they would be subject to arbitrary pay cuts and other workplace abuses. Indeed, this is why an overwhelming majority of players voted to recertify the NBAPA on December 1, allowing them to ratify the new agreement a week later.
The NBA is worth tens of billions, and its owners deserve little sympathy. To quote current owner Michael Jordan during the 1998 lockout, “if you can’t make it work economically, you should sell the team.”
There is no reason to subject NBA players to criticism for collectively agreeing that working through an exclusive bargaining agent, with the protection of federal labor law, is a better deal than giving billionaire owners free rein over them.
Ironically, Bob Cousy quit in 1958 as NBPA president because of his frustration with many players who refused to pay union dues of $10 annually, although the union continued to negotiate on their behalf. This same unfairness will be commonplace in Michigan after so-called “right-to-work” takes effect — weakening unions who will continue to negotiate for better wages and benefits, and giving business owners even more leverage over their employees.