by Shaun Scott
While Sunday football is for many an escape from the stresses of the workweek and the anxiety of an increasingly resentful era in American history, a rarely remembered episode in labor history American once reduced the distance between the passive spectator and the political situation of the country. Thirty-five years ago this fall, National Football League players staged a high-profile strike against avaricious owners and team management, withholding their highly visible work force in hopes of securing better wages, larger pensions and greater freedom of mobility as workers. .
After a summer of fruitless union negotiations in which NFL team owners refused to cave to workers’ demands, the NFL Players Association announced plans to strike following a Monday night football game between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots on September 21, 1987. The venue for the fall ritual of the televised pigskin, fans in the following weeks were treated to an unprecedented series of bizarre spectacles: contentious showdowns between unionized workers and billionaire owners; protests by scab supporters; and – perhaps the least memorable – terrible football matches played by opportunistic substitute players.
When players from all 28 league teams surrendered their jerseys and helmets, NFL bosses made a cynical bet: Of course, fans might miss the spectacular play of superstars like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve. Money – but the average viewer doesn’t know the difference between a long snapper and a tight end, their team’s starting offensive tackle or their nickelback second string. Believing that the fans were both football ignorant and as repugnant to the unions as they were, the team bosses hired tons of replacement players.
During the 1987 players’ strike, NFL teams recruited police officers, mechanics and factory workers – anyone with even minimal on-field experience. A concert promoter named Suge Knight played two games as a replacement for the Los Angeles Rams; Minnesota Vikings assistant coach Pete Carroll came close to being named the starting quarterback. ‘I’m just here to make a few bucks,’ Seahawks scab says1inadvertently summarizing the credo of the materialistic Reagan years.
Management proved wrong on two counts: not only was there a noticeable drop in the quality of the game when the scabs crossed the picket line, but many supporters cared more about respect for organized labor than of a silly pastime where men in pantyhose have knocked each other over. This was especially the case in northern cities ravaged by the flight of American companies who waged open war against unions and fled for cheaper labor. Of the four teams where no player crossed the picket line during the three-week strike — Chicago, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Washington DC — all were in or near the American Rust Belt.
In Philadelphia, fans bombarded substitute players with profanity and projectiles, holding up signs reading “Scabs Suck” and “Fans Against Scabs.” Fans and sportswriters across the country have coined derisive nicknames, ridiculing fake teams put together by union-busting team owners: the San Francisco Phoney-Niners, Pittsburgh Stealers, Los Angeles Shams, Spoilers of Houston and the Seattle Sub-Hawks.
Seattle had a long tradition of union activism, dating back decades when city workers launched the first large-scale general strike in American history in 1919. After the U.S. Department of Justice found that unions from the Seattle area routinely denied black workers entry into area guilds, labor organizer Tyree Scott fought to ensure minority contractors were included in the construction of the Kingdome, where the Seahawks have played their home games. When the Seahawks struck, they were not without comrades in the city unions, nor without supporters among the team’s famed fanbase.
On September 26, 1987, over 1,000 Seattle fans and union members held a union rally at the Kingdome for striking Seattle Seahawks players.2a 2b Represented among the ranks of organized labor were grocery store workers with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21, dealers then represented by SEIU Local 6, and electricians with IBEW 77. The striking Seahawks had even received official support from the Council of King County Labor. , the local affiliate of the AFL-CIO representing 75,000 workers in the Seattle area at the time.
In a summary of NFL labor action in the Fall 1987 edition of the Official Labor Council Journal2b, the organization’s executive secretary told workers wearing protective helmets: “A player must play four years in the NFL to receive his pension and be 55 before he can receive it. The average life expectancy for a player after playing four years in the NFL is 52 years.
Along with the boxers, the football players were the paradigmatic specimens of America’s physical courage; but during the strike, fans saw their vulnerability. A Seattle Times The union rally’s editorial quoted a local electrician as saying, “You think about how much money they make and you think they’re greedy. But you have to remember that our careers are going to last 30 or 40 years, theirs are not.2a
A 74-year-old Seahawks season ticket holder who joined a union after organizers helped him get a raise at a meatpacking plant in Iowa during the Great Depression also attended the Seahawks rally “Unions sometimes go to extremes, but they get good benefits for people. Players just want security.
Eventually, the NFL players’ strike ran out of steam: the union had made a tactical error by making free will the centerpiece of its public demands. Because most NFL players would not have careers lasting more than a few years, the rank-and-file workers who made up the majority of the league’s workforce had little incentive to continue striking. for the superstars who would benefit the most from free will. The superstars themselves also seemed eager to end the strike: Joe Montana and Eric Dickerson crossed the picket line in week three of the strike.
On October 18, 1987, a 10% capacity crowd in Detroit — a city hit as hard as any by the anti-union struggle — watched Seattle Seahawk Steve Largent shred the Lions scab from 261 yards. When the Seahawks regulars finally returned to the team the following week, union loyalists gave Largent the cold shoulder.
If there were more clarity between our sports and our politics, the 1987 NFL players’ strike would be a less stark reminder of the precarious conditions under which American workers have always worked. But professional sports remain the most public representation of organized labor in American popular culture, an enduring simulacrum of the job hazards, poor managerial behaviors and risky pay scales suffered by the working class on the obstacle course that has become survival. day by day. in the United States of the 21st century. For American workers, capitalism is both shark and water, biting individual workers with low wages and stressful work environments, while drowning the nation’s collective ability to imagine something better.
Seattle in the 1980s was a haven for up-and-coming companies, with Microsoft’s Bill Gates named “one of the 25 most intriguing people” in the country in People Magazine in 1983, and the Nordstrom family, who owned the Seahawks, raking in huge profits from their department stores in the area. After acquiring Starbucks when it had fewer than two dozen stores in 1987, Seattle businessman Howard Schultz dramatically expanded the company while fiercely fighting unions formed by struggling baristas. Within a decade, Starbucks operated 2,500 stores worldwide, on its way to becoming the world’s leading coffee behemoth.
Seattle today is a gleaming metropolis where the white-collar managerial class expects dependable service work from workers risking their health and safety during a pandemic. Starbucks baristas are the face of American labor unrest and are asking for the same support — to raise funds and direct actions — that the Seahawks received in 1987. exploitative newsrooms, nonprofits that pay paltry salaries and seemingly progressive politicians who suddenly turn conservative when their teams unionize.
As economists describe a ‘great resignation’ among workers weary from decades of stagnant wages, football is a brainless source of entertainment. But for a few short weeks in the fall of 1987, the grizzly gridiron game was something else: an exercise in solidarity.
1. (1987, October 3). “The replacement Seahawks will provide the effort, but what about the ability.” Seattle Post Intelligence2.
2a. (1987, September 27). “1,000 fans rally to bring the Seahawks back on strike.” Seattle weather1.
2b. (1987, October/November). “Distortions in NFL Owners’ Claims.” The Scanner/King County Labor News.
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Shaun Scott is a Seattle-based writer and organizer. A member of the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America and a member of the executive board of the Campaign Workers Guild, he is a former field organizer for Pramila Jayapal’s 2018 re-election campaign. He was Washington State’s field director for Bernie Sanders 2020. Shaun is the author of Millennials and the Moments That Made Us (Zero Books 2018).
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