All Players Unite at Northwestern

written by Bret Seferian

Recently at the top of our fair state the football players at Northwestern University voted to form a union – the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA).[1]  Because it involves sports and my friends all know I work with unions I have received a plethora of questions about the new union.

apuPeople are always interested in unions when they involved athletics, but often don’t see the parallels to their own lives.  Everyone was up in arms when replacement NFL referees made mistakes – but somehow the idea that replacing experienced teachers could be less then optimal isn’t seen as much of an issue.

College players complaining about struggling to make ends meet as “amateur” athletes while the schools they play for rake in the cash is nothing new.  Before the Northwestern players created a union some players in the South (primarily in the Peach State) wrote “APU” standing for “All Players United” on their uniforms.

Because Northwestern is a private university the CAPA petition will go to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).  The NLRB is a panel of political appointees that is part of the federal government and certifies the creation of new unions and investigates complaints about employers and unions breaking labor law.[2]

In this case the issue will rest on if the NLRB declares that football players are employees of the university (rather than just students).  In hearings before the NLRB CAPA, lead by graduating senior Quarterback Kain Colter, argued that Wildcat[3] football players put in far more than 40 hours a week.  Graduate Assistants’ unions often face similar questions.  GAs are not recognized as employees that can organize a union in every state.  Plenty of university administrators have argued that GA salaries are really “stipends” and that GAs are “apprentices.”

It is difficult to predict how the NRLB will rule (indeed it has flip-flopped twice on the question of if GAs are employees – depending on the political party of the President appointing board members).  Besides the question of if players are employees there is also that all the precedents for player unions are Collective Bargaining Agreements between players and the leagues themselves (the NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB).  In college football the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) sets a great deal of the working conditions and regulations for players.  There could be a question about how CAPA can address all the only negotiating with one university among hundreds.[4]  Northwestern might argue CAPA needs to win a vote of ALL college football players (possibly even in all divisions – down to the smallest schools).[5]

However the NLRB rules, this case will most likely end up in court for years – after all the current players have graduated.  Regardless of what the ruling is, this question is not going to go away.  There is a growing awareness of the unbalanced financials in big time college football amongst players.  That fact is going to force some tough conversations and eventually reforms.[6]  The National Football League Players’ Association fought for years with numerous strikes and lawsuits to become the union it is today.


[1] CAPA is an affiliate of United Steelworkers.  This isn’t as strange as it sounds: Graduate Assistants at the University of Iowa are affiliated with United Electricians and the grad union at the University of Washington (and the ones at most California schools) is with United Auto Workers.

[2] GAU would never go to the NLRB.  As you work for a public institution Graduate Assistants at SIU are covered by state law – the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act – and go to the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board.

[3] Please appreciate the humor that the Northwestern mascot, a wildcat, is a term for a type of strike (when workers go on a spontaneous unplanned strike not organized through normal union channels).

[4] I am not sure how the NRLB would address that some universities are public while others are private, although the issue may have been partially addressed before in unions for employees of government contractors or public/private foundations.

[5] The labor term is that a union has to represent everyone with a similar “community of interest” – for example a university could raise this issue against a GA union trying to represent Graduate Assistants History grads earning Master’s but not PhD’s – or only those who study European history, but not American.

[6] In the professional leagues players get roughly half the money the league generates.  Outside of the question of unions, plenty of big names support paying players – including legendary coach Steve Spurrier.

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