28 February 2011

Sports unions: role models for the future?

The way Mr. Right sees it, the problem in Wisconsin and elsewhere isn't really with unions. It's with exactly the collective-bargaining principle that's currently at stake. In his view, collective bargaining in most cases only promotes mediocrity. Pressed, he clarified that he didn't mean mediocre individuals, but mediocre overall productivity. This sort of mediocrity results, apparently, when people are paid the same for equal work measured only by the hours put in. Employers should have more flexibility, Mr. Right thinks, to reward superior productivity, for starters. Such a system was already in place in at least one sector of the economy.

"Look at professional baseball," he said, "The players have a union and a collective bargaining agreement. But they don't pay all the players the same amount."

It was unusual for someone who has joined in the general complaint against public employees earning too much compared to private-sector workers to propose as an alternative compensation system exactly the one which results, as far as nearly everyone is concerned, in even more people being grotesquely overpaid. Mr. Right has complained about that system often in the past, to the extent that it favors certain employers over others, but it seems to have a saving virtue for him. Professional sports, in theory, is meritocratic, not egalitarian. The best players, ideally, make the most money, and each player has the right to negotiate his own terms. Whether such a system would ever have come to pass had professional athletes been public employees is a subject for skeptical speculation. As it is, fans subsidize superstar salaries by paying higher ticket prices, but being fans (short for fanatics) they seem less troubled by that expense than by their share of tax that pays a teacher's wage. They may be more disturbed by the thought that the next NFL season may be delayed or cancelled by a lockout should owners and players fail to reach a new deal this year. Should that happen, they'll most likely blame players' greed rather than owners' avarice, which brings us back to the Wisconsin model. Some people just have a habit of blaming employees rather than employers whenever disagreements escalate.

While professional sports isn't an egalitarian workplace, it was my impression that the unionized major leagues at least have very generous minimum salaries. I asked Mr. Right to confirm that, but the conversation seemed to trail off at that point.


Anonymous said...

To my knowledge, the only reason employers don't reward superior productivity has nothing to do with unions or collective bargaining. It has to do with their unwillingness to part with the money.

If fact, it could more truthfully and factually argued that unions and collective bargaining have upped the ante for a wide majority of non-unionized jobs to keep them from unionizing. No, as usual with Mr. Right and his co-conspirators, although their theory seems sound in principle, it doesn't factor in greed.

But to address sports in particular - it isn't necessarily the best players that draw the highest salaries. It is the players who draw the biggest crowd that receive the biggest paychecks.

Samuel Wilson said...

It's hard to reward superior individual productivity in any sector other than sales or manufacturing. In the latter, piecework wages obvious reward productivity, but historically workers have preferred a set hourly wage while resenting those workers whose enthusiasm on the job led to quotas being set for everyone else.

In any event, the issue involved in collective bargaining probably isn't employers' freedom to reward superior productivity but the ease with which they can punish what they deem inferior productivity. The problem for the worker in either case is the employer's arbitrary power to set standards of productivity. Employers ideally want that power to be unilateral, but to make it so collective bargaining has to go.

In sports, popularity theoretically results from real achievement, but we all know cases in which flamboyant personalities have proven more popular than they deserved to be. Worse, competitive bidding among rival teams inflates salaries beyond any player's objective athletic worth. This sort of competitive bidding reportedly exists when corporations seek CEOs, but it's unlikely to be seen in the typical white-collar office.