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Marvin Miller Says NFL’s ‘Company Union’ Needs to Play Offense

Marvin Miller says the National Football League’s union needs to play more offense.

The 93-year-old Miller, who from 1966 to 1982 led baseball players through three strikes and two lockouts as their salaries rose 12-fold, said the NFL Players Association needs to stop placating owners. The union should march into the NFL’s Park Avenue offices in New York and demand concessions, including an end to the league’s pay ceiling, as part of talks on a new labor deal.

“I would go on the offensive,” Miller said in a telephone interview from his apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “I would demand the end of the salary cap now and in the future and go from there. You’ve got to show the owners you mean it. I’d follow it immediately with a series of meetings with players to work out their demands for changes in their contracts. And I’d serve them to the owners. I’d show them you’re not kidding.”

Owners in the U.S.’s most-watched television sport voted in 2008 to opt out of the labor deal with players this year, saying it didn’t account for costs such as building stadiums. Other issues include what share of revenue players should get, expanding the season to 18 games from 16, a rookie pay cap and health care.

Miller said the union has been too league-friendly and has failed retired players, echoing criticism from former players and coaches including Hall of Fame member Mike Ditka. Miller said he’s still waiting to evaluate the performance of DeMaurice Smith, 47, who took over as executive director of the union two years ago.

George Atallah, a union spokesman, said the players just want a fair deal. “Today’s NFL Players Association is interested in vehemently protecting players’ rights, but also securing the future business of our game,” he said.

Seeking Documents

Smith has asked owners to provide financial documents showing the need for a new agreement, since the league set television audience and revenue records last year, and accused them of preparing to lock out players when the deal expires March 3.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said the players and owners should be partners in the growth of football. Miller has a simple answer to that.

“They’re not partners,” he said. “Come on.”

Miller, whom historian Studs Terkel called “the most effective union organizer since John L. Lewis,” was born in New York, graduated from New York University in 1938 and worked during World War II at the National War Labor Board. By the mid-1960s, he’d risen to chief economist for the United Steelworkers, then the nation’s third-largest union.

Baseball Free Agency

When Miller accepted a job as the first executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966, the average player salary was $19,000 a year and players could change teams only if traded or released. By the time he retired in 1992, the average salary was $241,497 and players could become free agents.

Bob Bruno, a professor at the University of Illinois’s School of Labor & Employment Relations, said Miller’s stewardship gave baseball players “probably the strongest union in the U.S.” In contrast, he said, the NFL union has over the years agreed to cap its workers’ pay, failed to secure guaranteed contracts, and tolerated short careers and inadequate health care while ignoring the needs of retirees.

“DeMaurice Smith has an idea of building a collective mentality, but it’s not something I think has a strong history in the NFL players union,” Bruno said. “When there’s so much money to be made, it’s not hard to walk away with an agreement that overlooks strong institution building or creating a sense of solidarity.”

‘Company Union’

Miller said his union didn’t get powerful by considering itself partners with owners. He said that when the NFL union agreed to a salary cap in exchange for free agency, for example, it betrayed its members. Miller called that concession the most significant in a series marking the NFL Players Association as a “company union.”

“There’s never been a bona fide union in football,” Miller said. “It’s a new leadership. They should explain very carefully that no union can carry out its job by agreeing to a salary cap. A union is there to improve the wages, hours and working conditions of employees.”

Miller said Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame former player who led the union for 25 years until he died in 2008, was too close to management and got paid too much to be an effective advocate for workers. Upshaw helped secure free agency for NFL players and increased the average salary almost 20-fold in his tenure.

“That was only done because of the way the industry viewed him -- as an ally,” Miller said.

Leaders’ Salaries

Upshaw’s annual compensation was about $6.6 million during his last full year in charge, according to the union’s tax filing. Smith earned about $1.8 million --about the average NFL salary -- in pay and disbursements in the year ended February 2010, according to union documents filed with the U.S. Department of Labor. Richard Trumka, president of the 12 million-member AFL-CIO labor federation, was paid about $283,000.

Miller criticized the NFL union’s new leadership for moving too slowly on legal challenges to owners. The union should have filed a complaint against owners with the National Labor Relations Board months ago, he said. Owners filed a complaint against the union with the board this week.

“You can’t have everything and its opposite,” Miller said. “If the situation calls for strength and a militant stand, you can’t say, ‘That’s not my mindset, my approach, my way of doing things.’”

‘A Revolution’

In 1981, baseball owners wanted to get rid of free agency and some players didn’t want to strike, Miller said. He held a meeting and told them, “This was a revolution and now they want you to hand it back.” He told players that owners depreciated them like machinery or cattle on tax returns. And he told them that he’d quit if they didn’t stand together.

“Not only did they hold together for 50 days, and in a seasonal industry, that’s like 100 days in terms of loss of pay, they made one decision after another that would only affect future players,” he said. “The owners made a bold attempt to divide the players, to get them to say to themselves, ‘Why am I striking? This isn’t going to affect me. I only have a year or two on my contract.’ They understood when it was explained, and they were indignant.”

‘About to Fold’

Miller said he knows that Smith has a tough job ahead. The average NFL career is about 3 1/2 years. Keeping the union’s 1,900 members informed should be Smith’s first priority, because when players say they don’t know what’s going on, he said, “That’s a typical sign of someone who’s about to fold.”

“Unfortunately, players are impacted by the people they know,” he said. “There are wives, neighbors, friends who say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Look at the pay you’re getting.’ There were people who said that when the top pay in baseball was a tiny fraction of what it is today. You can’t pay attention to people who don’t know what they’re talking about.”

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