09/26/2012 02:14 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2012

The Value of Labor in High Def Slow Mo

Americans may best grasp ideas that emerge from something they really care about. Public policy, economic power and social compact morality? Meh, not so much.

But pro football? Now there's something about which Americans care passionately.

The advantages of a trained, experienced work force are not widely appreciated. Most of us are consumers of products and professional services; only bystanders who occasionally encounter a picket line. We watch idly (sometimes, even a bit disgruntled about the inconvenience) as disputes between employers and organized workers play out.

At most a management vs. labor work stoppage -- such as a nurse's strike at the local hospital -- can cause a postponement of elective medical services. A strike at an auto or airplane parts plant seldom impacts a purchase decision. Replacement flight attendants or sanitation engineers on strike are assumed to have little effect on our expectations as consumers. So, we passively hope the "thing" is settled before the next time we consume the product or need to utilize the service.

As all red-blooded American sports fans know, the National Football League (NFL) has locked out its trained, professional officials and started the season with replacement referees. The replacements are inexperienced and nowhere near as skillful as the locked out union referees. The inability of the replacements to do the competent job the unionized officials perform has been on vivid display for three weeks of pro football games.

Sports reporters, fans in the stadium and millions of viewers at home are witnesses each week to the incompetence of the replacement refs as it is analyzed repeatedly from every camera angle in slow motion replays. This leads to the question: is there something for the viewing and voting public to learn from this sad state of events they are witnessing with attendant handwringing and growing cries for the dispute to be settled to get the trained officials back on the field?

Perhaps. The lesson is this: turning to the atomized, lowest bidder market for services which require training and a professional skill set is not as easy as employers might like us to believe.

Current law permits unionized workers to be "replaced" or -- in right-to-work states without strong unions -- not hired at all. But nothing guarantees that the resulting work product won't be substandard and cause grief for the people who care about whether the service given by the replacement worker is as competent and professionally administered as that which would be provided by the workers who have been replaced. In fact, as illustrated in hi-def slow motion each Sunday, it is far more likely that the services of the replacements will be markedly inferior to that of workers who were carefully chosen, trained extensively and evaluated in the workplace through the years.

There are professional settings where, for example, unionized nurses or teachers are replaced during labor disputes. The likelihood is that the outcomes and reliability of those services decline in a manner similar to that of the game officials we have been witnessing during each Sunday's pro football games.

There remains little recognition or understanding that consumers of services and products have a stake in whether employers retain skilled employees who may be in a union. Few consumers understand how much they may have "a dog in the fight." If they did, they would frequently conclude that it is in their interests to be supportive of workers who are striving for better contracts.

No doubt all the fans and viewers who will call, text or e-mail the NFL commissioner's office to express displeasure with the quality of officiating of NFL games will be putting a large public thumb on one side of the scales in support of union referees. The sound you hear imminently will be that of the NFL caving to the demands of the union.

Commissioner Goodell and the owners have a self-inflicted public black eye that threatens their piggybank's credibility. The owners will put this dispute behind them since meeting the pension demands of the union officials involves little more than the amount of money one billionaire owner might spend on a car elevator for his summer home.

But, members of the public who are voicing outrage over football play outcomes should lend as much vocal support to union workers down the street from the football stadium when they are engaged in collective actions over wages with their employers.

Tongue in cheek, let me propose an approach to the labor dispute in pro football that deconstructs it on a geographic and political basis.

My hypothesis is that football fans from states with strong unions have different opinions about the dispute than fans from states with weak or nonexistent unions. Fans in heavily unionized states such as New York, Pennsylvania, or California may want to see their team owners push to settle on terms acceptable to the striking officials. Conversely, fans in right to work states like Florida, North Carolina and Texas may not sympathize with the strikers and will be satisfied to see the games officiated by any replacement ref the NFL can find who is free on Sunday afternoon for a few hours of extra work.

I propose that home teams be able to elect whether the week's game will be officiated by experienced, union officials or by replacements. If the Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys or Miami Dolphins host the game, those teams (playing in right to work states) can choose to continue the season with the replacements. If the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, or Oakland Raiders host the game in stadiums in states where unions are stronger, team owners could elect to use (and pay better pension benefits for) the union refs.

(If this seems a bit irregular, fear not. After all, different rules for one stadium versus another in the same sport is currently a facet of baseball. In interleague play, a designated hitter may be put in the lineup depending on whether or not the home team is in the league that uses a designated hitter. So, location-driven game rules for selecting the officials aren't really that odd.)

It is interesting that the most highly criticized muff of a call occurred in the recent game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks. Seattle won when a replacement referee wrongly declared a touchdown for the Seahawks despite obvious and endlessly replayed video evidence that the Packers player had intercepted a game-deciding pass thrown by Seattle. There is less debate about whether the call was grossly mangled than there is about who killed Nicole Simpson.

That the most glaring and galvanizing mistake so far this season should happen in a game played by the Green Bay Packers underscores two ironies.

First, Wisconsin voters have been at the epicenter of a struggle by Koch-brothers-financed attacks aimed at reducing the power of public worker unions in the state. Would Wisconsin voters feel so alienated from the state's public workers -- such as school teachers, firefighters and nurses -- if the public services the fans expect from the replacements for the unionized workforce are as competent as those provided by the replacement referees who made the call at the end of the Packer game?

Second, all but one of the team owners in the NFL are super-rich millionaires and billionaires. The sole exception to that demographic is the Green Bay Packers who are not owned by a superrich developer or car dealer. They are owned by community stockholders.

Will the vote of the Packers to end the league's lockout of its officials be the same as that of Jerry Jones, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys? For one thing is sure, if the Dallas Cowboys or the other teams owned by billionaires had been on the losing end of the call the Packers endured, the lockout would be ended in a wink of the eye.

UPDATE: As surmised when first writing this blog, state reactions reflecting blue versus red politics have already emerged. A New Jersey legislator introduced a bill to forbid use of replacement referees at stadiums in New Jersey. Therefore only union refs will be able to officiate games of the New York Giants and Jets since they play in New Jersey.

On the other hand, nothing yet has been heard from legislators in the State of Washington as they may urge legislation to require use of replacement refs since Seattle was rewarded by the replacement refs with a win that was undeserved. It is possible Seattle fans are so pleased they may advocate replacement judges for the state's court system also.