In a year of strife between worker and manager, NFL referees found themselves with a bargaining chip that Chicago teachers, striking bulldozer builders and locked-out sugar makers lacked: a staggering blunder by overmatched replacements, resulting in a worst-case, told-ya-so fiasco laid bare for millions to watch in disbelief on national television.
On Wednesday, the NFL and the referees’ union appeared on the brink of ending a three-month stalemate, two days after the Green Bay Packers lost a game they would have won if not for a less adept crew of replacement officials.
The whole mess — and pretty much everyone involved agrees it is precisely that — puts the spotlight on a nebulous notion that is often overlooked when it works as it’s supposed to: the question of expertise.
Workers leverage theirs by going on strike, while lockouts are a bet by management that they can make do without it. It’s an impasse that usually plays out on picket lines and private bargaining tables, and the fight has trended in recent years toward management.
But few unions have benefited as much as the NFL’s striped shirts from such a high-profile validation of the value of expertise. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, from rank-and-file laborers to the most senior of American managers, this one has hit home.
“The big difference is that 100 million people can see football on TV, so the mistakes are glaring,” said Mark Froemeke, who’s been locked out of his job as a loader-operator at an American Crystal Sugar Co. plant in East Grand Forks, Minn., for 14 months. “The mistakes that the scabs are making in the factories are behind closed doors.”