Unions in Pro Sports Are Just Like Those In Education

I’m a fan of labor disputes in professional sports because they provide a non-political lens through which to view the economics and motivations of unions, and teacher’s unions in particular. For example, the MLB player’s union is opposed to contracts that make heavy use of performance or merit pay, and it has nothing to do with the evaluation difficulties or counter-intuitive motivational factors often cited by teachers. The player’s union doesn’t like performance pay because in the long-run contracts that are better aligned to performance will likely lead to fewer inefficient financial decisions and lower average salaries.

Right now another interesting dispute is taking place between the NFL and the union of its referees. At the moment, all referees are part-time, but commissioner Roger Goodell wants to make some of them full-time – with corresponding pay increases — while also bringing in more part-time referees — I assume with corresponding pay cuts for the current refs who don’t get full-time positions. Goodell’s reasoning is solid. NFL officiating is one of those jobs for which it’s hard to predict who will be great. By allowing more people to officiate NFL games, the league will have a larger pool from which to uncover great referees. Those referees can then become full time refs who officiate more games and work in the playoffs. In the long-run the quality of officiating will improve, and to make that happen Goodell is willing to risk slightly-reduced referee quality in some regular season games.

Better playoff officiating isn’t the only outcome of Goodell’s plan. Allowing non-referees to become referees is bad for current union members because they will have to share the pie with more people. Because the union’s job is to advocate for curent, rather than future union members, the union is now fighting a proposal that seems likely to raise the long-run quality of NFL officiating.

In terms of our education system, I think our schools and the teaching profession would benefit from a system more like the one Goodell is proposing for the NFL. One thing people across the policy spectrum agree on is the impact of great teachers, but as with great NFL officials, it’s not easy to predict who will become one. The best way to find more great teachers may simply be to give more people the opportunity to teach.

The system would be similar to what Goodell is proposing for the NFL. A large group of current teachers would receive pay cuts and reduced workloads, and the money would go towards hiring more teachers. When a teacher proves themselves to be effective, they’re given increases in pay and instructional time. This could be done by increasing their class size and/or having rookie teachers spend time handling the expert teachers’ “unksilled” workload (e.g. grading homework, communicating with parents, etc.) When a teacher proves they’re an expert, the entire system works to maximize their impact.

The tradeoff is similar to the one Goodell is attempting to make. A small amount of slightly lower-quality work (i.e. instruction) in return for an increase in highly skilled employees and a correspondingly larger increase in higher-quality work. Teacher’s unions would be unlikely support the plan because it’s a net pay cut for current members, so for now file it away under “in an ideal world…”.


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