Anyone involved with their union or employee organization would be well advised to read the recent article by Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. in the Wall Street journal entitled “What Labor Could Learn Form NFL Refs”. Jenkins, Jr. accurately concludes that the reason the NFL owners (a group not used to compromising) made major concessions to settle the labor dispute with the referees, was the regular referees bring significant value to the game. The NFL owners thought they could easily hire replacement referees and maintain the lockout of the regular refs indefinitely. But after three weeks of the regular NFL season, chaos reigned. The replacement referees were woefully inadequate and in some cases even decided the outcome of games. Fans, players and coaches were in an uproar. The NFL owners recognized the true value the regular referees bring to the game. The professionalism of the first string referees was definitely missed. But their greatest value comes from their judgment, confidence and ability to make accurate calls consistent with the NFL rulebook.

Another good article that takes off of Jenkins Jr’s piece is the Column of John Ortiz, the California State union member and columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Ortiz makes a good point, and one that this writer and my office has been asserting for years, Public Unions have a major PR problem. Ortiz notes, that unlike the NFL referees, public sector employees don’t typically have a sensational visual aide such as a blown touchdown call in the Packers- Sea Hawks game. Public employees often work in anonymity and it is rarely obvious to the public whether public sector employees are doing a good job or not. Public Employees labor groups argue that replacements such a private contractors lack the skill, expertise or commitment of unionized civil servants. That is really the same argument that NFL referees were making about their replacements.

Ortiz makes another good point when he comments on the depth of the pension fight. The NFL’s lockout of its referees was not over money. It was over pension benefits. The hang up was that the NFL owners wanted referees to move into a self-managed 401(k) plan. NFL owners were always willing to give the referees a significant pay increase for their part time work. The compromise deal requires that NFL refs get a defined benefit pension for 20 years of service and, after that, fall into a 401(k) style plan. The future hires go straight into a 401k plan. Sound familiar? It’s happening everywhere in both the public and private sector. Its interesting to note that the NFL felt that strongly about defined benefit pensions even though it is wildly profitable and approaching a $10 billion a year business. The Referees deal is another example of the social and political pressure on pensions.

Employee organizations and unions need to always look to bring value to the workplace and become indispensible to the employer, as opposed to being a significant economic expense and an enormous administrative headache. Find ways to make your employer more efficient, generate greater revenues, provide exponentially better service and generally perform better, that way your employer will never think about hiring replacements.