Political Fix? Northwestern Players Vote on Union but NLRB Decision Means We May Never Know If It's a 'No'

Political Fix? Northwestern Players Vote on Union but NLRB Decision Means We May Never Know If It's a 'No'

Is the National Labor Relations Board giving labor-movement organizers a face-saving out by agreeing to hear a Northwestern University appeal to the decision that empowered student-athletes to form unions?

The NLRB’s eleventh-hour timing certainly sparks suspicion.

Northwestern University football players voted Friday whether to form a union. Though the 76 eligible players cast secret ballots, the sense of the team is that, despite the media hype surrounding the NLRB granting them the right to form a union, they don’t want to unionize. A “no” vote, of course, would deal a major substantive and symbolic defeat to the United Steelworkers and other labor-movement groups who have invested heavily in a public relations campaign casting student-athletes as exploited workers needing the protection of organized labor. They operated on the presumption that once an NLRB regional director in Chicago granted Northwestern kids the right to unionize they would automatically vote to do so.

On Thursday, less than 24 hours before the Northwestern vote, the NLRB agreed to hear Northwestern’s appeal. Three board members wrote, “Northwestern University’s Request for Review of the Regional Director’s Decision and Direction of Election is granted as it raises substantial issues warranting review.” This means that the ballots cast in Evanston, Illinois will be collected but not immediately counted. And should Northwestern win their appeal, the impounded ballots will likely remain uncounted.

To be sure, the appeal, written in strong language, deserves a fair hearing. “Instead of objectively setting forth the relevant facts, the [NLRB’s] Regional Director’s decision reads like a brief submitted by an advocate,” Northwestern argues, “with the facts he chooses to stress set out in the text of the decision and those which are equally important but which do not support his pre-determined outcome relegated to footnotes or completely ignored.” But the NLRB’s Thursday decision may be more about silencing the results of the player vote than hearing the university’s case.

Should the NLRB side with Northwestern on a technicality–essentially dismissing this particular unionization effort but not the broader notion that student-athletes should be treated as employees–then organizers would win substantively in the ability to continue unionization attempts of college students and likely avert a public relations defeat in keeping the count of the Northwestern vote secret.

But Paul Kersey, director of labor policy for the Illinois Policy Institute, doubts that the NLRB will side with Northwestern. “I think the National Labor Relations Board is going to be expanding its own reach,” he told Breitbart Sports. “I would be very surprised if the NLRB granted Northwestern’s appeal given the make-up of the board.”

But in politics as in football, fixers can win through losing. The student-athletes casting ballots today in Evanston understand this paradox better than most. Twenty years ago, Northwestern star running back Dennis Lundy, suffering from a gambling problem, deliberately fumbled on the goal line against Iowa. He won $400 as his team got crushed in the game and by the spread. Similarly, a political fix could hand the union movement an ostensible defeat by the NLRB affirming Northwestern’s appeal on a technicality that keeps the issue alive but kills the embarrassing count of the player vote. 

And spectators of the Northwestern case, unlike spectators at that 1994 Northwestern game against Iowa, ultimately won’t know whether they have watched a scam. When the fixers also serve as the referees, who throws the flag?

Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2013), edits Breitbart Sports.