Ortiz: Northwestern students and athletes deserve a union

Sterling Ortiz, Columnist

Every school day, my commute brings me a lot of downtime. I wake up, get dressed, take the M8 tram from the Queen Elizabeth Herzberge Evangelical Hospital to Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz and then take the U2 subway to Hausvogteiplatz, where my classes are. I spend most of this time listening to podcasts that expand my thoughts and introduce new ideas.

This past week, a Split Zone Duo podcast interview with Jennifer Abruzzo, general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, caught my attention. The episode centered on the memo Abruzzo issued Sept. 29, stating certain student-athletes are employees by the law and are eligible for employee protections and a union. This is a reversal from previous rulings under the Obama and Trump administrations, particularly the case College Athletes Players Association v. Northwestern University. 

This case, bearing our university’s name, came after Northwestern’s football team spent years attempting to unionize, flanked by National College Players Association leader Ramogi Huma and National Political Director for the United Steelworkers union Tim Waters. Quarterback Kain Colter organized a union among his teammates to advocate for a standard of health care and a stipend large enough to provide for players in their spare time.

NU refused to voluntarily recognize the football union. The regional branch of the National Labor Relations Board, headed by Peter Sung Ohr, heard the case and responded with confirmation that this union could form. Upon review, the entire National Labor Relations Board reversed the regional case and denied the NU football union.

I write this article today, inspired by the aforementioned Abruzzo interview, to argue that NU students, athletes or not, deserve a union and should be able to form one. I align with Abruzzo and Sung Ohr’s legal rationale because of my moral polestar.

Workers and rulers alike should treat all labor in this world with respect. In addition, workers and the state should be able to defend all workers’ rights from any threat. With this ideology in mind, how can any institution deny NU students and athletes their rights?

In the mid-2010s, not only did NU refuse to recognize the football union, but coach Pat Fitzgerald also pressured players to vote against the union. Then-Athletic Director Jim Phillips and NCAA Head Mark Emmert denounced the idea of collective bargaining, and former University President Henry Bienen threatened that NU sports would move down from Division I if the union succeeded in organizing. 

These tactics are common among union busters. They threaten that if employees bargain collectively, the boss will close up shop, and everyone will go unemployed. The state must protect workers’ rights and keep them safe from abuses of power like NU and NCAA union busting.

Northwestern football players are workers who generate revenue for the University and for the overall college football atmosphere. Entire television and internet networks profit from their efforts. Fitzgerald, along with everyone else on his staff and employees of NU football, would not collect a salary if NU had no players. At every turn in college football, coaches and television workers are paid, but football players sit with empty pockets. 

An NU Institute for Policy Research paper titled “Who Profits From Amateurism? Rent-Sharing in Modern College Sports” outlines potential athlete compensation. Under fair market conditions, the minimum a college football player would earn is $360,000 per year, and the minimum a college basketball player would earn is $500,000 per year. In addition, the top quarterbacks would earn $2.4 million per year, top wide receivers would earn $1.3 million per year and marquee basketball players would earn between $800,000 and $1.2 million per year.

These numbers make a mockery out of the scholarship and stipend Colter describes receiving, which would be at most a third of the fair market value. And we know these kinds of big-money deals are possible because some college athletes partake in name, image and likeness deals with rumored big numbers, such as Alabama quarterback Bryce Young’s nearly $1 million earned so far. 

Beyond raw dollars, a union would enable possible health benefits and stable retirement if the players choose to bargain there. Any gains would come from the players finally having equal footing with the coaches and larger institutions, which I feel is only possible through a union. These reasons, along with the potential monetary gain and respect for work, are why I back a union for college football players.

While I have focused on NU athletes in this article, I would like to tie in their struggles with all Northwestern students. Undergraduates do not have a union and instead must direct all complaints and inspirations to Associated Student Government. While I respect the current ASG president and vice president, as well as the various senators from different schools and organizations, I know that all their hands are tied against fighting for fundamental change. ASG’s president has no mandate to ask for a salary for undergraduate students, nor for expansive health insurance beyond the current NU-SHIP. A student government is an okay luxury, but for all students to be represented and unified for fundamental rights, we need a union. 

In addition, the fact that NU has not recognized the graduate workers’ union is a disgrace and demonstrates the same anti-worker tactics that the institution pulled against the Colter-led football team. Without students, both undergraduate and graduate, this university does not function. Without football players, the football ecosystem does not function. As students in varying capacities, we all face similar struggles, and we should fight and win together.

Sterling Ortiz is a SESP fourth-year. You can contact him at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.