Kain Colter, the public face of a movement to unionize college football players
  • AP Photo/Paul Beaty
  • Kain Colter, the public face of a movement to unionize college football players

When the employees of Chicago Public Media decided last September to try to unionize, they announced their intent to interim CEO Alison Scholly in the most collegial imaginable language:

“We, the undersigned employees, are proud to work for Chicago Public Media and to be part of the organization’s growth in recent years,” their letter headed “Dear Alison” began. “We are public-media professionals, dedicated to bringing the highest-quality content to the diverse communities of Chicago . . . As our stations and digital services continue to grow and evolve to achieve those missions, we believe it is important that we have meaningful input into Chicago Public Media’s future through a formal collective-bargaining process . . . We approach this process in a spirit of collaboration and professionalism . . .”

These gracious words reflected a tactical decision, to be sure, but as I saw for myself when I later interviewed members of the new union, they are essentially sincere. CPM and its flagship, WBEZ, are places where top-flight journalists do work they are proud of in jobs they’re glad to have. They consider themselves fortunate. But good fortune breeds self-respect and—at CPM as at many another workplaces—the belief is that if employees could speak to management in a stronger and more unified voice, their good jobs could become even better.

Now college football players want to unionize. The Tribune carried the story on its front page Wednesday. A College Athletes Players Association has been formed and has petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for recognition. The public face of this association is Kain Colter, a former Northwestern quarterback.

Back in the Tribune sports section, columnist David Haugh disapproved.

“Somewhere in a lakefront office,” Haugh wrote, “a worker on the university payroll wishes he had it as good as the football team. Instead of appearing at a news conference that inevitably will cast aspersions on his coach and school, intentionally or not, Colter should be saying: Thank you, Northwestern.”

Identifying himself as a former scholarship football player at Ball State, Haugh allowed that “the concerns Colter expressed aren’t lost on me.” He’d seen coaches break promises, players abused, career-changing injuries. Yet the demands of a Division One program were, to Haugh, “worth every minute. More than two decades after my last back-pedal, I believe playing college football remains a privilege more than a right and earning a free education was a life-changing opportunity my parents never let me take for granted.”

Let me pause here to draw a distinction: there’s a difference between a right to job security—that is, a right to hold a job without living in constant fear that it will be capriciously yanked away—and a right to the job itself, come what may. This distinction is lost on unionism’s biggest critics, it seems to be lost on many union members, and it’s certainly lost on Haugh. When the Sun-Times hired me decades ago I considered myself one of the luckiest people on earth. I had no more right to a good newspaper job in Chicago than any equally talented journalist toiling away in Terre Haute and Paducah. But when I got it, I had no objection to paying dues to the Newspaper Guild so it could keep an eye out for my interests. (I’d only been at the Sun-Times a few weeks when management impulsively reacted to a budget shortfall by trying to fire a couple of reporters who had been there longer than I had and made a little more money. The guild didn’t let that happen. I was impressed.)

Likewise, the members of the new union at WBEZ whom I’ve spoken with consider themselves privileged to work for such a first-rate station. But what does that have to do with the price of eggs? There is a difference between being grateful and being obeisant with gratitude.

But I don’t think Haugh gets the difference. “They aren’t steelworkers,” he wrote about college athletes. “They have their housing arranged and many meals prepared, their lives directed by adults who happily devote their careers to such responsibilities. They wear clothes and shoes the school provides and follow academic schedules planned for them to ensure they graduate on time . . .”

Now that Haugh has gotten that paean to paternalism out of his system, I urge him to study the life and career of George Pullman. In Pullman Village, south of Chicago, he created a kind of utopia for his employees. He built and leased them their housing, he stocked their shops and library, he directed their lives—and he profited mightily from the sweat of their brows. And when he slashed their wages and maintained their rent and his workers went on strike in protest, he allowed federal troops to move in and shoot them. He was buried in Graceland Cemetery encased in steel-reinforced concrete so the same men he’d granted the privilege of working for him wouldn’t dig up his body and tear it apart.

Dignity matters.