Saturday, 6 July 2013

Solidarity in the face of Injustice

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day … No the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” -Rosa Parks

This year marks a hundred years since the birth of Rosa Parks. Growing up on a small farm in Tuskegee, Alabama few could have imagined that Ms. Parks was destined to change the face of civil rights in America. But just as few could have imagined Ms. Parks would change America, few could deny she did.

When Ms. Parks was 42 years old she was working as a seamstress and was heading home on the bus after a long days’ work in Montgomery, Alabama[1].  She had seated herself near the middle of the bus, in a seat behind the 10 seats specifically reserved for white people. When the bus filled up, however, and there were no seats left, she was told to give up her seat to accommodate a white person who’d entered the bus. Ms. Parks knew that as an African American woman she was legally obligated by the segregation laws of the time (otherwise known as “Jim Crow laws”) to give up her seat. But weary of a system that promoted discrimination and the “horrible restrictiveness of Jim Crow laws”[2], she was not about to give up her seat that day.

She knew the laws were absurd and racist and morally wrong. As a volunteer with the NAACP, she knew that in the past 12-months alone three other African-American women had been arrested for the same act, but she also knew that she wasn’t going to take it anymore.

The NAACP had been looking for a plaintiff for a test case to challenge the constitutionality of the segregation laws. For a variety of reasons the NAACP determined the others would not make good plaintiffs. But Ms. Parks was different. She was well-regarded in the community and it was felt she could garner broad public support[3]. As another passenger of the Montgomery bus system is reported to have said at the time: “they’ve messed with the wrong one now.”[4] And so Ms. Parks, through a simple yet bold act of non-violent protest, did something that would inspire a sea-change in America: she refused to give up her seat.

Ms. Parks was promptly convicted of violating the segregation laws. While she appealed the conviction, a civil rights group, the Montgomery Improvement Association, organized a boycott of the bus system. A young charismatic Baptist minister was chosen to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association and organize the boycott. His name was Martin Luther King Jr. 

Roughly 75% of the people who rode the buses in Montgomery at that time were African American and the boycott thus posed a major economic threat to the bus lines. Those who saw and disagreed with the obvious injustice of the laws that made Ms. Parks’ arrest a lawful one, stood in solidarity and made the boycott a rousing success[5].

The boycott lasted 381 days until a case inspired by Ms. Parks’ persecution went before the U.S. Supreme Court where the Court upheld a District Court ruling that the “separate but equal” segregation laws were an unconstitutional violation of the due process and equal protection of the law clauses enshrined in the 14th Amendment[6]. The segregation laws were accordingly struck down and three days later, on December 20, 1956, Montgomery was ordered to have integrated buses.

The strength and courage of one woman, backed by the solidarity of those who supported her decision to reject unjust treatment, sparked a boycott and civil rights movement that altered America. When she sat down others stood up, and they brought to America a truth it had ignored for too long: there is no separate but equal, there is only equal.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Fighting for Collective Bargaining Rights

In the past decade mixed martial arts fighting (MMA) has become a phenomenon in the sports world and a veritable juggernaut for pay-per view ratings, with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) being the largest and most renowned MMA organization.

Pay-per view events generate huge revenues for sports organizations. Boxing has become well-known for garnering massive pay-per view revenues and, since 2009, the UFC pay-per view ratings have eclipsed even those of boxing. Boxers earn gigantic sums of money for these fights. UFC fighters are significantly less fortunate. How to explain the difference? Boxers and other sports figures are protected by legislation and via professional associations. These protections often set a minimum level of compensation and treatment the athletes can expect. UFC athletes, on the other hand, are essentially left to their own devices.

According to Bleacher Report, when famed boxer, Floyd Mayweather, fought Robert Guerrero earlier this year, Mayweather reportedly earned $32 million for the fight. Headlining fighters from the MMA are suspected to earn far less than that. While the UFC is notoriously secretive about the earnings of its fighters, it has been reported that Georges St-Pierre, the Welterweight Champion of the UFC and one of the sport’s top draws, earns somewhere in the neighbourhood of $4 - $5 million per fight. That may sound like a lot of money, and it is, but compared to the earnings of a boxer like Mayweather, it’s somewhere between 12.5% and 15.6% of Mayweather’s earnings.

And it’s far worse for fighters who aren’t the “stars” of MMA. These fighters earn a mere fraction of the salaries of the larger names in the sport, scraping by on whatever they can get. This situation is unfair to the lower-level fighters, who submit themselves to physical punishment for paycheques that may not even allow them to cover their rent for the year. The bigger names recognize this and have shown support for the lesser stars, speaking out about the inequality in their sport.

Dana White, CEO and President of the UFC has responded in a manner that may remind workers from any industry of employer threats and reprisals. White said: “You guys don’t like the structure? All right, we’ll pay the lower-level guys more money –no more f---ing bonuses.”

Bloomberg Business Week reports that White’s comments reveal the plight of fighters in a grueling sport without collective bargaining rights[1]. White has suggested the players can come in and negotiate their own contracts and the UFC will simply get rid of the bonuses some fighters get on fight nights. The fighters are essentially treated like independent contractors instead of employees. There is no floor to a fighter’s earnings, and of course White’s suggestion could only harm the fighters and benefit their employer, the UFC.

Zev Eigen, a law professor at Northwestern University, has had a rare chance to view one of the contracts the UFC, through its parent company Zuffa, offers to fighters. Eigen notes the contract is drafted to favour Zuffa, with little regard for the fair and equitable treatment of the fighters. Eigen chalks such one-sided contracts up to a lack of union representation: “none of these fighters are represented by a professional association or a union. There’s nothing that sets a minimum or basic standard below which the company can’t go.”

Eigen then picks up on the same dangers wrought by a gross power imbalance between workers and employers that inspired the Rand Formula. Eigen highlights the importance of unions and collective bargaining when he states:

It makes sense – in any relationship like this you would expect the contract to favor the more powerful actor. This should be intuitive and it’s universal. If you’re contracting with Apple, you shouldn’t be surprised that Apple takes as many rights as possible. If you use iTunes in any way they don’t like, hell, fire will rain down on you. That’s what you can expect anytime you’re contracting with an entity more powerful than you are[2].

A former manager to a UFC star echoes Eigen’s sentiments, asserting that the company profits while fighters get exploited. This, he notes, is made possible because fighters “don’t have a voice”[3].

MMA fighters may be testaments to toughness and human endurance, but without a union and the protections of solidarity, they are just as vulnerable to maltreatment and exploitation as any other worker outside of organized labour.

These fighters are a reminder of what happens when workers are isolated and unable to rise up with one voice to demand better working conditions. They are a compact example of the inherent inequity of right to work laws, which tilt the balance of power in favour of the employer and set in motion a terrible race to the bottom. While it’s true that MMA may not be the first thing to come to mind when thinking of collective bargaining rights, it clearly shows that unions are crucial to the equitable treatment of workers no matter which industry they’re in. The fighters show that unions are just as vital now as they ever were – because no matter how hard you can hit, without organized labour backing you up, the employer will always be able to hit harder. As critics of the UFC point out, if the fighters want fair pay and better working conditions, they must “embrace collective bargaining and leverage a greater share of the profits.”[4]