I’ve moved my Saturday sports post to today because much of the country is buzzing about the Monday night game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers, a game that was settled by an apparently bad call by scab referees (excuse me, “replacement officials”). In case you haven’t been following football, the National Football League has locked out its veteran referees—it wants (among other things) to lower their pensions—and their replacements are getting worse by the week as coaches and players figure out how to take advantage of their inexperience.
Given that there’s a labor union involved and that Monday night’s game involved the Packers, it seems appropriate to bring up Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. I’ll explain why in a moment.
First, however, let’s review what happened in the closing seconds. Down 12-7 with one play left, the Seahawks heaved a “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone. A Seattle player blatantly pushed aside one defensive player (he should have been called for offensive pass interference) and then tried to take the ball away from the defender who had intercepted the ball. This he succeeded in doing, but only after they had gone to the ground. The rules say that, in the end zone, if a defender initially intercepts the ball, it is an interception, regardless of what occurs subsequently. On the other hand, if both the receiver and the defender get their hands on the ball simultaneously, the tie goes to the receiver.
After the Seattle receiver wrestled the ball away from the Packer defender on the ground, the referees should have huddled up. Instead, one appeared to signal an interception (or maybe he was signaling the end of the game), only to be overruled by the referee signaling touchdown. After viewing replay footage, the refs found insufficient evidence to overturn the touchdown call and so the play stood.
In one delicious irony, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who has been seeking to strip public sector unions of their collective bargaining power, has joined many fans in saying that the NFL owners should settle with the referees’ union. Here’s the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait on the subject:
Scott Walker is an unusual case. He’s probably the most cross-pressured man in America on this. On the one hand, he is synonymous with crushing unions, to see them driven before him, to hear the lamentations of their women. On the other hand, he is a Packer fan.
Chait then notes a second reason why Walker probably wants the union to disappear from the headlines (which they will if a settlement is negotiated and they come back to work):
[T]he NFL referee lockout is turning into a gigantic advertisement for organized labor. Conservatives have spent decades successfully associating labor unions with laziness and shoddy work. Here we have, broadcast into tens of millions of living rooms all autumn long, a high-profile example of an almost perfectly chosen case for unions. Management consists of multimillionaires commanding a wildly profitable and often publicly subsidized business, trying to squeeze its workforce in a way that’s utterly debilitating to the product.
Here’s how Timothy Egan of The New York Times explains the situation:
So what’s at stake in an economics parable that goes to heart of our true passion?About $3 million and change. That’s it. The refs, who earn between $78,000 and $139,000 annually for part-time work, are holding out to preserve their pensions, among other sticking points. The National Football League, which took in more than $9 billion in revenue last year and owned 23 of the 25 most watched telecasts last year, wants to cut the pension contribution by about 60 percent, moving the refs from a defined benefit into something closer to a 401(k).
Amy Davidson of The New Yorker ties the issue in with a larger national conversation we are having. The NFL owners see themselves as having “built that” and resent their workers standing up for themselves. She cites economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman as she relates it to the current battle between Democrats and Republicans:
[T]he glorification of the entrepreneur ha[s] led to scorn, in conservative circles, for the ordinary—and often ordinarily heroic—employee. It’s the sort of attitude that allows Mitt Romney to say that it is both fair and good for all people if his investment income is taxed at a lower rate than what a fifty-thousand-a-year employee pays.
Now to The Jungle, which is, of course, a strong argument for labor unions. After all, without unions the workers are mercilessly exploited. Jurgis, the main character, thinks he can survive on his own in the industry—he is strong and thinks of himself as pulling himself up by his own bootstraps—but after he is hurt on the job (there is no workman’s compensation for injury and no national health insurance), his life falls apart.
In a previous post, I have noted how Sinclair compares working in the slaughterhouses to playing football. The relevant paragraphs are the following:
Along one side of the room ran a narrow gallery, a few feet from the floor; into which gallery the cattle were driven by men with goads which gave them electric shocks. Once crowded in here, the creatures were prisoned, each in a separate pen, by gates that shut, leaving them no room to turn around; and while they stood bellowing and plunging, over the top of the pen there leaned one of the “knockers,” armed with a sledge hammer, and watching for a chance to deal a blow. The room echoed with the thuds in quick succession, and the stamping and kicking of the steers. The instant the animal had fallen, the “knocker” passed on to another; while a second man raised a lever, and the side of the pen was raised, and the animal, still kicking and struggling, slid out to the “killing bed.” Here a man put shackles about one leg, and pressed another lever, and the body was jerked up into the air. There were fifteen or twenty such pens, and it was a matter of only a couple of minutes to knock fifteen or twenty cattle and roll them out. Then once more the gates were opened, and another lot rushed in; and so out of each pen there rolled a steady stream of carcasses, which the men upon the killing beds had to get out of the way.
The manner in which they did this was something to be seen and never forgotten. They worked with furious intensity, literally upon the run – at a pace with which there is nothing to be compared except a football game (bold italics mine). It was all highly specialized labor, each man having his task to do . . .
And there is a further connection. The Packers owe their name to the Indian Packing Company, a Green Bay company that specialized in canned meats. Sinclair’s vivid description of the plight of meatpackers, and even more of how “tubercular beef” was being canned and sold, stirred up public indignation at owner selfishness and greed.
The existence of player and referee unions is partly the result of people like Sinclair speaking out, a testimony to the political potential of novels. It should be an inspiration to the refs that, while the packing plant owners seemed to have all the power, Sinclair was able to marshal public opinion and force them to accept regulations.
It would be fitting if the outcry at the injustice visited upon the modern-day Packers gave the refs the leverage they needed to end the lockout.