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The Steelworkers, college football and 'Buckeye Battle Cry'

January 29, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
With the dearth of actual American steel mills, the paper industry exporting jobs and fast foodies apt to dump their nascent unionism when Congress ups the minimum wage during this we-need-the-votes election year, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the United Steelworkers union continues to expand its roots.

And, with the constant haranguing about the rights of student athletes to sell their souvenirs, trade ‘em for tattoos or get paid for nonexistent jobs while they risk life and limb to play football for the glory of the alma mater, it’s no surprise that the players are pushing to tilt the table in their direction.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the United Steelworkers were accompanying the quarterback of Northwestern Tuesday in announcing the push to form a college athletes’ union, the National College Players Association.

The NCAA immediately responded that it expects the National Labor Relations Board will find that the students aren’t employees and thus there’s no need for a collective bargaining situation.

To paraphrase the Parsing President, Bill Clinton, depends on what you mean by “pay.”

The thing that is stunning is the picture of Kane Coulter, the Northwestern QB flanked by Leo Gerard. Mr. Gerard, who a few years ago was the local Steelworker’s friend, the guy who had their backs, who wanted to be sure those so-and-sos who owned the companies played fair. Who made sure the Brazilians weren’t the top pick for the purchase of Wheeling-Pitt, nor were the Indians. I wonder, given the expansion into paper and other places, including nuclear workers, public-sector workers, health care workers and more, if most of the people in the USW tower in Pittsburgh remember the names of the men in the Ohio Valley who were the union’s main focus just about six years ago.

This is, after all, high profile union stuff, the kind of stuff that draws headlines. The nation long ago forgot about actual jobs that paid real wages in smoky places like Weirton and Steubenville and Gary, Ind. or Birmingham, Ala., or, God forbid, Obama’s high-tech hub of Youngstown. It can do nothing but raise the profile of the Steelworkers to be involved in a motherhood-and-apple-pie, everybody has a favorite team thing like college athletics. Bread and circuses.

At least 27 Northwestern University football players needed to approve of being in a union. The union filed papers at the NLRB office in Chicago Tuesday and the announcement with Mr. Gerard and the players came later. Next comes an election.

Having covered many union elections, I cannot imagine sitting in some hallway in a USW hall somewhere, watching for the door to the sealed union meeting chamber to open and some huge football player to come out and start talking tough about the school and the administration.

Used to be when I was a kid that people who talked tough about their college and their administration were the kinds of folks who protested and burned down ROTC buildings and brought the Ohio National Guard to campus. It wasn’t the football team.

Still, I’m not surprised. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The time is long past to recognize that major college football is a farm system for the NFL, which avoids the expense of having to maintain its own farm system a la Major League Baseball or the NBA (which itself grabs players from the colleges). It’s time to admit that rah-rah, sportsmanship and the glory of the game dies somewhere in most high schools. By the time these kids get into major colleges, it’s not about most of them getting an education, the ostensible reason for athletic scholarships. It’s about the big bucks and recognition that football brings to the schools, which in turn might give enough prestige (though probably not more money) to recruit engineering students and accounting students and computer-science majors.

It’s a virtual win-win for the USW, though. The nation will be talking about the United Steelworkers in a way that hasn’t been done since the last national steel strike.

And Wheeling-Pitt will still be gone. And Weirton will still be a few remaining operations humming along among a pile of rusting hulks awaiting their removal.

At least the USW will finally have some theme songs to use on the strike lines.

Could give a whole new meaning to “Buckeye Battle Cry,” eh?

“Drive, drive on down the field, Men of Scarlet and Gray…

“Don’t cross our picket line, we just want some equal pay, Fight! Fight! FIGHT!

“Smash all their windshields, 'til we get us some dough…

“Our jobs defend, we will fight to the end with OH-HI-OH!”

Beats my playing the Russian national anthem on my computer every morning while W-P closed up shop.


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