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Cattle Call, or More Fun with Imperfect Analogies

What we can learn from striking/locked-out millionaires.

September 25, 2012

I don’t know if you’ve been following, but there are some pretty major labor disputes occurring right now.

And I’m not talking about the recent Chicago Teacher’s Strike.

The NHL owners have locked out the players, putting the hockey (yes, it’s hockey) season in jeopardy. The conflict with the union stems from the usual issues of revenue sharing, salary caps, scheduling, and pensions. Players have relocated and signed contracts with European and Russian teams, preparing for a long, drawn out lockout. The owners are holding a hard line on player salaries, and have decided to follow commissioner Gary Bettman off a cliff of their own making. Undoubtedly, there are teams that are losing money, but they are in markets that had the warning signs that hockey would not work and still they cling to them (aka just let Pheonix relocate to Quebec City, already!).

Hockey is a niche sport. It can thrive in small markets, but less-so in non-traditional ones. The die-hard hockey fans who grew up watching the sport and cheering for their home teams (Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Pittsburgh, etc) will come back. But the viewers won’t. And the casual fan won’t. And the hockey players will go where they are paid (Europe, etc). I’m not sure what the owners are thinking. Although, recent comments from an executive shine some light on the inner-workings of the league:

“It’s very complicated and way too much for the average Joe to understand, but having said that, I will tell you this: The owners can basically be viewed as the Ranch, and the players, and me included, are the cattle. The owners own the Ranch and allow the players to eat there. That’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it will be forever. And the owners simply aren’t going to let a union push them around. It’s not going to happen.”

As the article linked above points out, this is not the first time that the cattle metaphor has been used for labor battles between leagues and the athletes; in 1987, it was used to describe the relationship between NFL players and team owners. The players (who do, admittedly, make a lot of money playing a game, but also put their bodies through tremendous punishment and risk real long-term brain damage) are nothing more than interchangeable bodies use for our entertainment and the owner’s profit, to be replaced at their (and supposedly our) pleasure. But the owners do forget one important aspect of their fans: we are, indeed, difficult to please, but we also recognize the best, and replacement players just aren’t going to cut it. Just ask MLS. Most people who are soccer fans still prefer to watch European soccer because that’s where the best players play. We won’t pay Kobe beef prices for chuck.

Or, ask the NFL how their little struggle with their referees is going. Three weeks into the season and players lives are being put in danger, not to mention the outcome of games, in the hands of less experienced refs. But the NFL seems unwilling to grant the refs what they want in terms of salary and benefits. A multi-billion dollar industry is hinged on a few million dollars to the men (and now one woman) who make the calls and keep the game in check on the field week after week. One would imagine that both the players and the refs are no better than cattle; that the league is willing to put the integrity of the game and the health of the players in jeopardy is shocking (Chutzpah is how Dean Dad put it).

I shudder to think about how these two labor disagreements will play out. This attitude generally towards unions (or more generally, the worker) I think is problematic. How many of us, in higher education, feel like we are no more than cattle allowed to graze within the hallowed walls of higher education at the discretion and pleasure of administrators and Boards? The MLA Jobs Tumblr is depressing because it so closely resembles the reality of the job market; we will be whatever they ask us to be and keep coming back, no matter how ridiculous or degrading it becomes. We are told that we should feel “privileged” to be working in higher education, that there is no higher calling, a no more noble (and cushy) job.

I’m not asking you to sympathize with the players or refs, or even with the professoriate (both on and off the tenure-track); that is a useless exercise, if the comments on my posts tell me anything. If you think that professors are lazy and overpaid architects of their own misery, this missive will not dissuade you. But I am asking to look closely at these major labor disputes and ask, have we all just agreed to let ourselves be treated (and treat each other) like cattle?


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