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May 2014

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Athletes Spark Talk of Youth, Unions

A short time before he led the UConn Huskies to the NCAA basketball championship, Shabazz Napier was asked how he felt about a finding by the National Labor Relations Board's Chicago regional director that football players at Northwestern University were employees under federal labor law. The ruling gave the green light for players to unionize.

"It's kind of great," Napier said. Then, the scholarship athlete admitted going to bed hungry some nights because he didn't have the cash for a good meal, even while the dazzling point guard helped fill stadiums, netting millions for his school.

Napier's hungry days are probably over. He's expected to be picked up late in the first round of the NBA draft and sign a lucrative contract, becoming a union member himself.

But Napier's commentary and the courageous efforts of athletes at Northwestern to organize say a lot about what is happening in America.

In a post on U.S. News and World Report's online debate forum, AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer, our own Liz Shuler, speaks out about the immediate concerns of the athletes and how their efforts to organize fit into the larger picture of young people and unions.

Most Northwestern football players will never reach the NFL, says Shuler. Yet they cannot take another job while on the team without athletic department approval. They are required to give the university the right to use their names and images in any manner it sees fit, contributing to the $5- $10 million in profit generated by the football program each year.

"Despite all of these contributions to the campus and community," Shuler says, "Football players are faced with the possibility of sustaining a career-ending, chronic injury without any guarantee the university will continue to provide essential medical care."

It's not yet clear whether a majority of players will vote to form a union at Northwestern.

But, says Shuler, "It turns out, the players aren't alone in their opinion of unions — they're just acting their age."

Sixty-one percent of 18- to 29-year-olds have a favorable view of unions compared to 50 percent or less for all other age groups, she says, citing a Pew Research study.

And why wouldn't they? Starting careers in the worst economy in generations, young people have seen what happens when workers have no voice and wealth flows only up. They're open to the promise of organizing. Let's make sure we do our part to welcome them in. U.S.


Also: Chilia: Supreme Court v. Democracy Read Chilia's Column

Edwin D. Hill

Edwin D. Hill
International President