AUSTIN, Texas – If good help is hard to find, just how expendable is expertise?
In a year of strife between worker and manager, NFL referees found themselves with a bargaining chip that Chicago teachers, striking bulldozer builders and locked-out sugar makers lacked: A staggering blunder by overmatched replacements, resulting in a worst-case, told-ya-so fiasco laid bare for millions to watch in disbelief on national television.
On Wednesday, the NFL and the referees union appeared on the brink of ending a three-month stalemate, two days after the Green Bay Packers lost a game they would have won if not for a crew of less-than-adept replacement officials.
The whole mess – and pretty much everyone involved agrees it is precisely that – puts the spotlight on a nebulous notion that is often overlooked when things work as they should: The value of expertise.
Workers leverage theirs by going on strike, while lockouts are a bet by management that they can make do without it. Its an impasse that usually plays out on picket lines and private bargaining tables, and the fight has trended in recent years toward management.
But few unions have benefited as much as the NFLs striped shirts from such a high-profile validation of the value of expertise. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, from rank-and-file laborers to the most senior of American managers, this one has hit home.
The big difference is that 100 million people can see football on TV, so the mistakes are glaring, said Mark Froemeke, whos been locked out of his job as a loader-operator at an American Crystal Sugar Co. plant in East Grand Forks, Minn., for 14 months.
The mistakes that the scabs are making in the factories are behind closed doors, he said.
Froemeke said he knows the people hired as replacements for the 1,300 locked-out union workers inside the plants are bumbling with beet slicers and unable to dry pulp in techniques passed down through generations.
If the farmers and the management want to be like the NFL owners and deny it, thats what theyre going to do. But nevertheless, its the reality, he said.
Ken Margolies, a senior associate at the Worker Institute at Cornell University, said the upper hand that NFL referees gained instantly this week is increasingly rare for uniquely skilled workers in labor disputes.
One major culprit is technology: Tool-and-die workers in the auto industry are easier to replace since automation was adopted, and management can now outsource jobs like customer service to overseas.
The NFL referee lockout, he said, is most recently comparable to the 2007 writers strike in Hollywood in terms of profile. But Margolies couldnt recall such a blatant example where a labor standoff turned on this kind of debacle.
Its just so obvious that people couldnt be replaced and get the same result, he said.