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It’s all about the pensions

I didn’t stay up to see the end of the Monday Night Football debacle. Whether you endured it or not, perhaps you’re wondering what exactly this particular labor dispute is about. To be blunt, it’s about the NFL attacking the referees’ retirement plan.

The referees’ union and NFL team owners remain at odds on several issues — pay, staffing levels and the arbitration system, to name a few. But Scott Green, the referee who’s head of the NFL Referees Association, says there’s one proposal above all others that he and his colleagues can’t manage to swallow: the league wants to freeze their long-running pension plans and switch them to less attractive 401(k)-style retirement plans.

“The key is the pension issue,” Green told HuffPost, adding that the pensions have been around since the mid-1970s. “A lot of our guys have made life-career decisions based on assuming that pension would be there.”

In facing a pension freeze, the NFL refs have plenty of company. Corporations across the country have been trying to switch their employees from traditional defined benefit pension plans to cheaper, less reliable defined contribution plans. Just one example is Con-Ed, which recently locked out workers as it tried to phase out employees’ traditional pensions and move them to 401(k)s.

A lockout, it should be noted, is different from a strike. The workers do not elect to stop working — they are forced to do so by management, putting them on the defensive. (Writing at The Nation, Dave Zirin and Mike Elk compared locking out 119 referees to “using an Uzi on a field mouse.”) The prevalence of lockouts during labor disputes has soared in the weak economy.

But in this case, employees are squaring off with an ownership that doesn’t pretend to be under financial duress. According to Forbes, the average NFL team is now worth $1.1 billion, up 7 percent over the previous year. To draw a blue-collar parallel, the league is a bit like the manufacturer Caterpillar, which has been pressuring its workers to bend to concessions despite the company’s record profits.

Indeed, when HuffPost asked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to address the pension issue on Wednesday, he didn’t argue that the league’s retirement contributions to referees had grown too onerous. Instead, he simply noted the fact that American workers in general are losing their defined benefit pensions. Even Roger Goodell, Goodell noted, doesn’t enjoy such a pension plan.

“From the owners’ standpoint, right now they’re funding a pension program that is a defined benefit program,” said Goodell, who was in Washington on Wednesday attending a luncheon hosted by Politico’s Playbook. “About ten percent of the country has that. Yours truly doesn’t have that. It’s something that doesn’t really exist anymore and that I think is going away steadily.”

“What we agreed to do and offer as ownership,” he added, “is that they would have a defined contribution plan, in the form of 401(k), so they’ll still have a pension plan but the risk, like [for] most of us, would be on individuals.”

As I said before, this fight is entirely of the NFL’s choosing. The refs don’t make that much money. Their pension plan isn’t some out-of-control cost for a staggering industry. The league is straight up trying to screw them, same as they tried to screw the players last year. The Players’ Association, to its credit, has called on the league to end the lockout. The players have the right under their agreement to refuse to play if they believe their safety is in danger, and I hope they are prepared to take that step if the league won’t back down. And as for Goodell’s claim that the refs would be like him if they didn’t have a defined benefit plan, well, when the refs are paid as well as Roger Goodell, then he might have a point. Even people who don’t much care for unions, especially those in Wisconsin, are calling for the NFL to end the lockout before it gets any worse. I fear it is going to take something truly awful for the NFL to finally see reason on this. I don’t even want to think about what that might be. You can sign this petition at Change.org if you want to call on the NFL to end the lockout. See this Deadspin chat with George Atallah, the spokesman for the NFLPA, for more.

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