By Dave Zirin

After a thirty-year erosion of power, influence, and
numerical strength, a period of reckoning has arrived for
organized labor, and the terms of the debate couldn’t be
starker. It’s not wages or benefits that are being negotiated
in the twenty-first century. It’s whether labor unions-and
the basic protections they bring-will exist at all.

This can be seen dramatically in the two most high-profile
labor disputes in the country, disputes that on their face
couldn’t seem more different. There are the public-sector
workers of Wisconsin-the teachers, ambulance drivers, and
child-care workers-trying to fend off Governor Scott Walker’s
efforts to legislate them out of existence. Then there are
the N.F.L. players, facing an imminent lockout if they don’t
accept massive wage cuts and a longer season.

It seems almost comical to compare the two: after all, in
Wisconsin, public-sector workers are attempting to defend
decent-paying jobs that they can keep for decades and then
retire with a sense of security. In the N.F.L., the Players
Association is attempting to defend lucrative careers that
last on average three and a half years, have a hundred per
cent injury rate, and will statistically result in death
twenty years earlier than the typical American male.
But both face someone across the negotiating table–Governor
Walker or N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell–who questions
their right to exist and their right to organize. They are
reading from the same neo-liberal playbook, and the only
difference is that Goodell actually has a college degree and
is probably just savvy enough not to take a prank call
supposedly from one of the Koch brothers. (When I was in
Madison last week, I saw twenty eight-year-olds with a banner
that read, ‘Scotty is as smart as my potty.’) Goodell and the
N.F.L. owners are guaranteed network-television and
sponsorship money whether there are any games this year or
not. That’s why the owners, with nary a dissent, have
announced that they are ready and willing to lock the doors,
even if it forces the union to decertify and they lose the

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