Misulonas: NFL referee fumble highlights growing polarization of unions

Joseph Misulonas, Columnist

On Wednesday, the NFL reached an agreement with the official referees’ union, ending a lockout that lasted the entire preseason and the first three weeks of the regular season.

The league had hired replacement referees to officiate the games during the lockout. On Monday night, the replacements made a truly awful call at the end of the Packers-Seahawks game that stole a victory away from the Packers. The Ravens-Patriots game was also decided on a last-second field goal which may or may not have gone wide of the posts.

These controversial calls generated significant outrage. Even Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, himself a Packers fan, weighed in, saying, “Give me a break. It’s time to get the real refs.” It is, at first glance, surprising that the pro-business Ryan came out in support of a private sector union.

It would be unfair to paint Paul Ryan as a union supporter based on one comment about NFL referees. Ryan even made a statement about how the replacement referees were like Obama, although the better comparison would have been that Obama is the NFL: Instituting horrible policies (replacement refs) that are hurting our small business owners (the football teams) and their profit margins (victories).

However, the referee scandal highlights America’s issue with unionization. On one hand, in the face of corporate greed, Americans are often willing to stand up and fight in support of unions. However, when unions make demands during times of hardship — the Chicago Teachers’ Union demanding a 30 percent base pay raise during a recession, for example – they are often viewed as an entitled and destructive force.

This often-conflicting view of unions puts politicians on a tightrope when speaking about the issue. Wisconsinites may support Gov. Scott Walker’s bill to strip collective bargaining rights from public unions, but that does not mean Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney should assume they will also support slashing the jobs of teachers, police officers, and firefighters to make up budget deficits. The more unions you go after, the more you risk alienating constituents.

In our polarized political atmosphere, unionization has become polarized as well. Following World War II, big business and unions allied together to promote their joint interests. But as our political parties began to drift apart in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the alliance between business and labor severed, making every union contract dispute a proxy war in the ongoing battle between right and left.

To restore the American middle-class means to restore American unions. Workers must be able to bind together to ensure a comfortable, reliable standard of living. But unions have to recognize that workers in China and third world countries can work for 10 cents per hour, and they must be accommodating to businesses to ensure that they remain profitable.

Otherwise, we’ll be leaving our country in the hands of Division III referees.

Joseph Misulonas is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].