Fearing lockout, labor groups ready to play ball in NFL contract dispute

Labor groups are taking sides in the contentious contract dispute between NFL players and owners and warning of catastrophic job losses if the 2011 season is canceled by a lockout.

Unions not traditionally associated with professional football are expressing solidarity with the NFL Players Association and telling lawmakers that the standoff could cause a wave of layoffs in industries like construction and concessions.

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The collective bargaining agreement between NFL players and owners expires on March 3. If the two sides don’t agree to a new contract by that date, the league will likely enter a lockout phase that would keep players off the field and fans out of the stands.

John Marler, a concessions worker at Detroit’s Ford Field, came to Washington this week to stress that the livelihoods of stadium workers are hanging in the balance.

“It’s what makes their lives happen. It gives them the ability to support their families,” Marler said. “It’s not as if in a place like Detroit, you can go out and find another job.”

Marler appeared Thursday at The National Press Club on behalf of Unite Here, a union of hotel and restaurant workers. He said many of the 30,000 stadium workers in Unite Here could lose their jobs this year if the NFL shuts down.

Marler said he stands with the players as they negotiate with owners on their new contract.

“We work hard and you guys definitely work hard. What you do makes our lives possible,” Marler said of the players.

At issue in the dispute are demands from owners that players commit to an 18-game season — two more than the current 16 — and take a league-wide salary cut. The reduction in pay would total around $1 billion.

Players argue that they would be subjecting themselves to more injuries for less pay if they agreed to the owners’ demands. The owners say the costs of running an NFL franchise are growing rapidly and depleting their profit margins.

The two sides met for talks this week, but the negotiations resulted in little progress, according to media reports. All-day talks between owners and players that had been scheduled for Thursday in Washington were cancelled, and it is unclear when the meetings will resume.

Unite Here is not the only union that says its members would take a hit from a lockout.

A lobbyist for the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association said members of his union have been talking to lawmakers about the impact of a lockout on the economy.

Jay Potesta, assistant director of governmental affairs for the union, said he is worried that construction jobs needed to prepare the Indianapolis Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium for next year’s Super Bowl are now in jeopardy.

The United Steelworkers is also speaking up on behalf of the players.

More than 700 steel workers came to Capitol Hill on Thursday to express their opposition to a lockout.

Gary Hubbard, a spokesman for the United Steelworkers, said his union supports the players due to their belief in strong labor rights. It was “incidental” that his union members could benefit from stadium construction jobs, Hubbard said.

“NFL players are workers too,” Hubbard said. “It's more about the principle of labor laws of the land and defending the rights of workers to belong to unions, no matter who they are and what jobs they have.”

Other important labor groups are also behind the football players as they negotiate their new contract.

American Rights at Work — a labor-backed worker rights’ advocacy group — is supporting the players, as is the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has written a letter to the team owners in support of the players’ union, which is an AFL-CIO member.

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