Ours is a tradition of gratitude, since unions are responsible for everything working people have -- from the 40-hour week to maternity leave. If not for them, we'd still be serving barbecued rat with a cold gruel appetizer for Thanksgiving.
Yet rooting for the players in the impending baseball strike stretches the boundaries of goodwill. This, after all, is a fight between money-grubbing assholes -- meaning the players -- and money-grubbing half-wits (i.e., the owners). It's like picking sides in a catfight between two CEOs. The best you can hope for is that both will leave whimpering because their briefcases got scratched.
John Ryan sees no quandary. "Every good labor leader, when choosing sides between millionaires and billionaires, chooses the millionaires every time," he says.
Ryan is the head of the Cleveland AFL-CIO, which makes him the pope on all matters economic. It's not as if he's arguing that players deserve our allegiance; he's just certain that owners have earned our scorn.
Ryan first met Tribe owner Larry Dolan at a Cleveland City Council meeting. At the time, Dolan was negotiating to buy North Coast Cable. The company was suffering from labor unrest, and council members wanted to ensure that Cleveland's cable contract forbade North Coast from firing workers for organizing.
Dolan, apparently a keen student of human nature, told council "he would walk away from the deal if they kept it in," says Ryan. Council faced a vexing dilemma: It could either side with its constituents -- 80 percent of whom consistently vote the union line, according to AFL-CIO polling data -- or side with a guy named Larry from Chardon. Hmmm, that's a tough one.
Dolan -- surprise! -- lost the battle, yet purchased the company anyway. Still, he wasn't about to abide by the contract's spirit. The union discovered that during its organizing drive. "When you'd go knocking on doors," says Ryan, "people would tell you, 'I'm glad you came to my house, because if you did it at work, I'd be fired.'"
Former Tribe owner Dick Jacobs wasn't much better. When workers tried to organize at one of his malls, Jacobs's henchmen "forced people into meetings to hear the evils of unionism, telling them that their hours would be cut, making other threats," says Ryan. It was stuff straight out of the 1930s, which made Jacobs not just anti-worker, but exceedingly unoriginal.
"It reminds you that even though they're baseball owners, they're still bosses," says Ryan. Then he delivers the decisive blow: "George W. is a former baseball owner."
(Even scarier thought: George W. is also a former cheerleader. You heard that right: The War on Terror is being led by a former male cheerleader.)
Ryan's arguments, of course, should not be confused with gushing support for the players. "You'd find very few people in organized labor with sympathy for either side," says Ken Ilg, who runs the hotel and restaurant workers' union.
His members make an average of $8.50 an hour and endure some of the bloodiest fights in Cleveland. Take the cafeteria workers' battle at Case Western. They've been trying for nearly three years to get a contract, and are actually paid less than part-time student employees. They could use a high-profile hand from their brothers in the players' union. But have the players, with the wealthiest union in America (minimum wage: $200,000), ever reached out? Naaah.
"The players' association, despite opportunities to do so, has never done any support work for other unions," says Ilg. Fact is, no one in Cleveland can remember an Indian walking a picket or showing up at a rally.
Greg Bouris, New York spokesman for the players' union, can recall just two instances when his guys fought for a cause other than their own. A few years ago, the union urged players not to film commercials during the Screen Actors Guild strike. More recently, "we lent our support" to strikers at the New Era sportswear plant in Buffalo, he says.
How so? "We sent letters."
Ilg knows who his friends are. In two years, the concession workers' contract at Jacobs Field expires. "If that were to lead to a strike," he says, "I can literally guarantee there would be no player walking with us on the picket, and no one would refuse to take the field."
They may, however, send a letter on very imposing stationery.
While the owners (motto: "Ruining the National Pastime for over 100 years") may be dolts, they make no bones about their business. The union, on the other hand, is playing us for suckers.
During the coming strike, the players -- or at least those capable of polysyllabic diction -- will yap about "solidarity," protecting what others have built, preserving something for their children. They will pretend to carry on the tradition of real union men, people who risked hearth, home, health -- who didn't hesitate to reach out when someone reached toward them -- so that others may rise.
But the players will only wear this tradition like a suit. And suits are just worn for looks.
It matters not whether they strike for weeks, months, or -- hopefully -- years. Great Spirit willing, we won't see them again till 2005.
What does matter is they're bringing shame to a tradition that actually means something.
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