Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Upyours: In Defense of Gene Upshaw

Over in Michigan the folks at the UAW and the big three auto companies are engaged in an epic negotiation with the potential to shape the face of labor-management relations for the near future. The sticking point for negotiators and revelation that could alter the collective bargaining landscape is the proposal to shift the burden of managing retiree health care to the union.

This is significant because, well, unions are not in the business of providing health care to current members or retirees. Instead, they negotiate increases to the employee's wage package, and a portion of the total wage package is diverted into a fund that is used to pay for member and retiree health care. A twist on employer-provided health care, to be sure, but employer-provided health care nonetheless.

So please, please resist the temptation to pile on Gene Upshaw. Why? In addition to negotiating against an uber-powerful and uber-secretive band of NFL owners, the NFL Player's Union ("NFLPA") is NOT in the business of providing health care to current members or retirees. And Gene, to this point, has been slaughtered in the otherwise logical movement to take care of the NFL's untouchables with reasonable NFL retiree health care and pension benefits. However, Upshaw (note: a "union boss") has only a modicum of control over the decision to pay retiree health care and/or disability claims.

The fund dedicated to paying retiree pension and disability claims for former NFLers currently contains approximately $1.1 billion. As we all know, Unions are not to be trusted with such exorbitant sums of money (I'll put away the sarcasm pen as there is a barn full of historical evidence that union leaders have "misappropriated" funds in the past (note: that makes them like every other bastard with access to money without oversight)). By extension, Upshaw (note: a "union boss") cannot be trusted to manage the $1.1 billion retiree fund nor is he the sole decision maker when retirees make claims.

Why? I mean, how? I mean both.

Decision-making power was seized from unions by a piece of legislation that Senator Taft and Representative Hartley put together back in 1947 that echos as the greatest restraint on union power this side of actual violence. Among other things, the Taft-Hartley Act prevents unions from accumulating monies in a fund to pay for health, disability and other benefits unless there is an equal number of management trustees and union trustees with ultimate responsibility for management of the fund.

The NFL fund in question is a Taft-Hartley fund, and the decision to pay disability claims or alter pension determinations is made by a group of six trustees (three labor and three management), none of whom is Gene Upshaw, or, as I understand it, are they even employees of the union. Best I can gather is the three labor trustees are actual NFL retirees.

It is likely the labor trustees are guided by and in agreement with the probable union position to pay as many claims and grant the maximum pension benefit possible. Therein lies the extent of Gene Upshaw's influence over payment of the claims that he has been burned at the stake for not being more concerned about.

Instead of being praised for having such a well-funded trust to pay for retiree needs, the responsible union is chastised for not being able to force management trustees into opening up the fund's coffers. They already spent union capital to establish the fund and burn more every contract negotiation to ensure enough money is dedicated to the fund (even for a bunch of wealthy athletes $1.1 billion in a union trust fund is astonishingly well endowed).

Yesterday, a few members of Congress were suspected of saying "boo" to a group of former NFL players brought in to testify on the general issue of caring for NFL retirees. It was later learned that Daryl Johnston was on hand to testify and the Senators and Representatives were simply chanting "Moose" after he made a sound argument in favor of increased care.

Moose was there with Upshaw, Gale Sayers, Mike Ditka, Roger Goodell and Garret Webster (son of former great Mike Webster). Other than management representative Goodell, present in his primary role as management apologist and blame-deflector, the witnesses stood up to beg Congress for a legislative change that would allow the union more control over decisions to pay disability and pension claims. In effect, a request to overturn the sixty-year old Taft-Hartley Act's mandate that all union trust funds enjoy equal representation of labor and management trustees.

Not bloody likely.

Perhaps another time we can cover the unusual influence of pro sports on labor law (read: a union member with money enough to sue his employer can pose some interesting questions), but for now suffice it to say a labor union is unlikely to receive differential treatment just because it represents a dog pile of millionaires. To expect otherwise would open the door for trade unions across the country to demand control over their respective funds.

Not bloody likely.

Instead, expect the NFLPA to continue to shoulder blame for a health care problem that the rest of America places on employers. Expect to hear how much Upshaw makes and how little he does. Expect the lauding of NFL owners for standing on the precipice of bankruptcy just to put a competitive squad on the field. Expect a continued drive to describe player contracts in fake money instead of guaranteed money. Expect blame for steroid use to fall on reticent union officials.

Expect the domestication of the dog to continue unabated.

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