Thursday, 14 April 2011

Would You Strike if You were Paid $1m a Year?

No, for a change we're not talking about city bankers (although I'm sure some of us would like them to go on strike!). If you're American, it's far more serious than any international financial crisis. It's the prospect that professional American Football players could go on strike and curtail or even wipe out the 2011-12 season.

Let's get things clear: we're talking big money here. The NFL (National Football League) generates around $9 billion each year and at present just over half of that goes back to the players through salaries and other payments. The rest is kept (or invested) by the owners of the 32 teams. This means that the minimum annual salary a professional player will earn is $320,000, with the biggest stars earning well in excess of $10m a year. The median figure is $800,000, and with bonuses and endorsements almost half of all NFL players can make $1m per year.

The issue is basically that the owners want more money, and have offered to increase the 'pot' by extending the season from 16 to 18 games. The players want to retain the status quo (more games would risk more injuries) and are prepared to strike to achieve this. Although the season doesn't start until September, negotiations are already deadlocked; the two sides are not even talking at the moment and their only contact is through a series of acrimonious lawsuits. A delayed start to the season, or even its total cancellation, seems very possible.

To be fair to the players, their average professional career lasts only 3½ years, and their terms of employment would be illegal in any other occupation. For example, even city bankers can decide which company to work for. Not so professional American Football players, who (thanks to special exemption from relevant legislation) can only move between teams in very limited circumstances, often not of their choosing. They are also paid per game, so going on strike would lose them, at 'minimum salary' $20,000 per week. The league's biggest earner, Peyton Manning, would lose almost $1m per week.

All this puts a new perspective on current debates about the level of UK public sector pay and how well we reward chief executives. I believe it also tells us something about our wider working lives.

To start with, it seems to prove there's more to life than money. Even three years at an average NFL salary is more than most of us will earn in a lifetime. Call it status or pride if you like, or maybe basic human rights if you're on the players' side, but it seems clear that people are not prepared to be wage slaves no matter how large the wage in question.

This finds an echo in our own society. At an personal level we look for motivation, respect and fulfilment from our work as well as a living wage. Nationally too, the message seems to be gradually getting through that there is more to life than GDP. Less tangible aspects such as well-being, community and environment matter as well.

It also carries lessons about working with people in any situation of collaboration, not just employment. Reaching agreement, reaching a situation where two groups whose interests do not coincide can work together effectively, needs a mindset that respects the other party's view and understands why they act as they do. Not exactly "know your enemy", but it is about stepping outside your own perspective and seeing the world from someone else's.

Perhaps it's something uniquely American, but with the NFL these wider aspects of understanding seem to have got lost in a headlong rush for money. Let's hope the rest of us are not so blind.

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