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Jon Ortiz

The State Worker: What can public worker unions learn from NFL refs?

Published: Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jul. 10, 2013 - 10:44 pm

A new contract for a small band of unionized industry regulators, locked out until last week, literally prompted standing ovations around the country.

So, National Football League Referees Association, got any lessons to pass along to public employees?

Public unions have a PR problem. Until a few weeks ago, NFL refs were like many government employees: largely unnoticed, occasionally booed.

Then a blown call by replacement officials last month handed the Green Bay Packers an undeserved loss at the end of a nationally televised game. A public outcry followed for the league to get the regular refs back on the field.

Two days later, the NFL and the union cut a deal that raises the refs' pay over seven years from the current average of $149,000 per year to $205,000, phases out traditional pensions for current refs and brings new hires in under a 401(k) plan. And the refs are part-timers.

The deal highlights how relatively little the public cares about what unionized private industry employees earn. Who cares what the referees get paid? Most games still sell out, and you can choose whether to buy the ticket.

"But the perception of public employee compensation is, 'These are my taxes,' " said Ken Mayer, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. " 'I don't have a choice whether to consume.' "

A sensational visual aid helps. "The league thought it could get by with replacements," Mayer said. "It's not true. That (Packers) game made it obvious."

Public employee labor groups often argue that nonunion replacements – private contractors, charter school teachers and the like – lack the skill, experience or commitment of unionized civil servants.

The difference, however, is the government's lack of instant replay. It's not always "obvious" why a program gets off track or succeeds, or whether different workers would perform better or worse.

That's at the core of arguments over everything from charter schools to privatized prisons. Unlike the clearly blown Packers call, it's not obvious which side is right. So unions will always have to spend resources debating that judgment call.

The pension fight is everywhere. Why was a $9 billion league willing to lock out 121 refs whose total pay and benefits cost between $3 million and $5 million per year?

"The biggest issue was pensions," Mayer said. "The owners don't like them. It wasn't the money. It was the symbolism."

The new deal caps the 121 current refs' defined benefit pensions at 20 years of service. After that, they fall under a self-managed 401(k) plan. Future hires will go straight into a 401(k).

The NFL is wildly successful, yet it's dumping traditional employee pensions. Public-sector unions want to escape the trend, but the refs' deal reveals that the social and political pressure in that direction will continue as government budgets continue to struggle.

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About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at


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