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January 30, 2014

Unionization putting scare into NCAA

LOS ANGELES — The news Tuesday that college athletes are seeking representation by a labor union brought a knowing smile to academics who operate far from the field house.

The move by Northwestern football players to join the United Steelworkers union is unprecedented by college athletes, but old news among University of California system graduate student instructors.

“We’ve been there, done that, and it works,” University of California, Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken said.

Shaiken teaches an undergraduate labor relations course called “The Southern Border,” a class that contains 400 students and eight graduate student instructors. The student instructors are like athletes in that they not only attend school, but also work for the university in a job that produces revenue in the form of tuition.

Yet, unlike the athletes, all eight student teachers belong to a union, which has bargained salaries, benefits and working conditions for all UC system student instructors for more than a decade.

The unionization of college football players can happen because, in a sense, it’s already happened.

“What the Northwestern athletes are doing is an innovative, long-overdue move,” Shaiken said. “It’s not only smart, but possible.”

After years of rhetoric about how the college jocks are wrongfully denied a piece of the billion-dollar pie that is college athletics, labor experts say Tuesday’s announcement is the first real step toward fairness. Are you ready for your favorite letter-sweatered quarterback to start cashing a paycheck? Are you ready for your alma mater’s lovable offensive line to bargain for less practice time?

The big-time college sports world veered onto this ground-breaking course when Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker and president of the National College Players Association, filed a petition on behalf of the Northwestern football players with the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board.

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