Unionization – A Primer and Players

It’s been a pretty traumatic silly season. We’ve had teams completely reform, dropping their flagship drivers. It is a similar refrain of each silly season: good drivers don’t have rides and any deal made can be crumpled up and thrown away. It was over a year ago that James Hinchcliffe made the very unexpected public statement that there should be an ‘association’ for drivers.  He stopped short of calling it a union, and even distanced himself from the word as it has “negative” Connotations. He’s right, and over the course of the next two-days. I’m going to explore this idea.

I’m pretty public with my ideas about everything. I am a fan of Unions because I believe in the idea of a union in the purist sense. I worked on unionizing a former workplace and studied workplace unions during college. In the first part of this series I’ll strive to keep any personal feelings out.

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What is a Union

At it’s simplest form, a union is a group of workers who come together to have a voice in the conditions of the workplace. The union, the elected representatives of the union, actively negotiates with the leadership of the employer. It’s a process called “collective bargaining” which is a continuing process throughout the lifecycle of the workplace. It’s when collective bargaining breaks down that leads to a strike or work stoppage.

Most unions today are local organizations of a national or international union (such as the United Auto Workers). Primarily you can divide unions into two types: trade unions who represent individual to do a specific type of job, or industrial unions who represent individuals in a specific industry. The United Brothers of Carpeting represent carpet layers (a trade union). Contrast that with the Service Employees International Union which represents any worker in the service business (industrial union).

Brief History of Unions

Unions are truly in the spirit of America. The earliest strike happened in 1768 when tailors protested a wage reduction. The first union to begin in America was the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (cobblers). Unions slowly started to spread from the eastern coast to across the US as a whole. In 1852 the first international union happened when the Typographical Union combined local unions in the US and Canada to become the International Typographical Union.

For the longest time, unions surrounded the specific trade skills and was seen as something only in the skilled workers. The first non-trade union was the National Labor Union which dealt mainly with the federal employees and limited their workday to eight-hours (something those of us in the public sector still enjoy today!). The first unionization in the private sector was the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (1881) and the American Federation of Labor (1886). It led to the creation of the US Department of Labor, and ultimately the 1914 Clayton Antitrust Act. This Act allowed employees to strike. The Clayton Antitrust Act was followed by the Public Contract and Fair Labor Standards Act which dealt with minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor laws.

Most people know of the initials AFL-CIO, which stands for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. The AFL-CIO is technically not a union, but more an association of all of the unions. Up until 2005, the AFL-CIO represented nearly all of the union workers in the United States.


Sports Unions

Disagreements have canceled the World Series, canceled a whole season, and caused replacement players brought in to continue. Unions in professional sports, whether you support them or not, are a lightening rod. It is hard for those of us making non-six figures to feel sorry when players making millions and owners making millions disagree.

Non Motorsports Unions

National Football League Players Association

The players in the National Football League are represented by the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), and is actually one of the oldest professional sports unions. Founded back in 1956, the NFLPA received it’s first collective bargaining agreement in July of 1968. As you may remember from last time, the collective bargaining agreement is the process where the union negotiates on behalf of the members. In sports it focuses around compensation. Primarily the NFLPA have started strikes around revenue, free agency, or veterans. The longest strike held was from March to July of 2011, which was not during the NFL season. The union did have a strike during the season in 1987, and replacement players were brought in (which I believe is the plot of an Adam Sandler movie).

National Hockey League Players Association

Players who are part of the thirty-one clubs in the National Hockey League are represented by the National Hockey League Players Association. This specific union works in both the US and Canada (as NHL teams are in both countries). Given the amount of games played in an NHL season the amount of games canceled because of strikes always seem extreme. From 1994-1995 there were 468 games canceled and there were 526 games canceled from 2012-2013. Between September of 2004 and July of 2005 the whole season and draft were canceled as the two sides failed to come to an agreement over the collective bargaining agreement.

Major League Baseball Players Association

The Major League Baseball Players Association represents all players, managers, coaches, and athletic trainers who have a contract with a major league team. As the oldest sports union, the MLBPA not only has a labor union, but also a business to over see licensing, and a charitable foundation. Strikes effecting MLB seasons surround mostly compensation and free agency rules. In 1981, a court ordered strike over compensation caused 712 games to be missed. Most incredible to comprehend was the strike from August of 1994 to April of 1995 which caused the 1994 playoffs and world series to be canceled, that was over a salary cap disagreement.


Motorsports Unions/Association/Groups

Contrary to their other professional sports brethren, motorsports is struggling to have unions or even associations. The Formula One Grand Prix Drivers Association is the most successful of unions in motorsports. Originally founded in 1961, the organizational goal was representation of drivers on the FIA governing body. The association went into a quieter role until the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix (following the San Manrino Grand Prix where both Ayrton Senna and Roland Tazenberger died) and took a stronger role in driver safety. The Association was of course involved in the 2005 tire debacle at the US Grand Prix, and put out a statement for teams using Michelin tires. It’s noncompulsory, but did achieve one-hundred percent membership during the change from Bernie Ecclestone to Liberty Media. Some major concerns advanced by the association at that time was television coverage and increased revenues, inequality between team budgets, and lack of noise from the engines.

In contrast to the Formula One association is the unsuccessful attempts at unionization in NASCAR. Both attempts focused on the safety of drivers and the ability for drivers to have pensions, which is necessary in a sport where death is always around. In 1961 the Teamsters tried to help the drivers unionize, but league laws were enacted to prohibit unionization. The two drivers involved in the effort received lifetime bans, only one was later reversed. Eight years later, Richard Petty led a successful strike attempt at the Talladega race. Drivers were reaching speeds of 200 miles per hour, but the safety measures weren’t adequate for those speeds. Tires were blowing on cars, and drivers had no HANS devices, and the track did not have a SAFER barrier. While NASCAR leadership refused to allow a postponement, forty of the top drivers boycotted the race. They were all back for the next race. Currently NASCAR has the Race Team Alliance which is a group of fourteen teams to help promote the sport and increase collaboration between teams.

It’s striking (no pun intended) to see the difference between non-motorsports and motorsports unionization. The long established professional sports unions are concerned with salaries and other monetary issues of the players. The motorsports unions are focusing on safety conditions and inequality within the system. For those of us in and around the paddock it is easy to separate the two different types of unions from each other. For most everyone else: it won’t be. I understand the hesitancy for anyone to use the term “union” in the INDYCAR paddock. When you think of sports unions, it’s the millionaires against the millionaires. Most people don’t know how little an INDYCAR driver makes. It is a big hurdle to overcome.

If you’ve made it this far through the series – tomorrow is the day where an INDYCAR union is discussed.


www.unionplus.org (last accessed on November 24, 2019)

https://www.investopedia.com/articles/economics/09/unions-workers.asp (last accessed on November 24, 2019)

https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/labor (last accessed on November 24, 2019)

https://www.investopedia.com/financial-edge/0113/the-history-of-unions-in-the-united-states.aspx (last accessed on November 24, 2019)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AFL%E2%80%93CIO (last accessed on November 24, 2019)
https://finance.yahoo.com/news/30-most-powerful-unions-america-090000629.html (last accessed on November 24, 2019)









Photo by Robin Sommer on Unsplash