What unions do for umpires and referees, or why the NFL referee lock-out is bad for everyone
I was a unionized baseball and softball umpire from 1993 to 1996.
For two years before that, like a bunch of other teenagers, I umped local Little League games for between $8 and $10 a game: $8 when I worked the field (running between bases) with another ump at the plate, $9 when we swapped positions and $10 on the rare occasion I spent the whole game as the home plate umpire. The occasion to make $10 was rare, because the head of the program made sure that if I was ever assigned with a boy umpire, he got the $10. One day, I stopped getting called to ump games at all, because the head of the program had a falling out with my dad. I eventually picked up work as a scorekeeper at the girl’s softball field, which was deemed more appropriate for the girls working in the league.
One day, I got into a conversation with one of the unionized umps who worked the older kids’ games at which I was scorekeeping. He made $19 to $25 a game, and his schedule, pay and continued employment weren’t subject to the whims of the local league’s infighting or their personal feelings about him or his kids. Instead, the league contracted with his union for the services of a trained umpire, and the union trained him, dealt with the contracts, worked out the scheduling and settled disputes. That sounded like a deal to me (especially as it meant no more wasp-infested announcer’s booth and never chalking or raking the infield again), and I joined up as soon as I turned 16.
The union trained me, helped me get my certification and scheduled me as much work as I wanted and could handle. The older guys took me under their wings, gave me rides to games and made it clear to some of the coaches with attitude problems that even if I was young and small, I had their support and the support of my union. In disputes with coaches that escalated — I never had any, but there were some** — it was my right to force the offending team to forfeit and leave the field, and that right was built into the contract with my union. In disputes over game-changing calls, it was the league’s right to ask the union to convene a hearing and, if it went against me, I would forfeit my pay to whomever had to ump the do-over (which also never happened to me and rarely in the union).
Effectively, other than it’s for more pay, that’s what the big unions do for professional umps and refs. They provide a layer of protection so that if a team doesn’t like you, or doesn’t like one of your (legitimate) calls, they can’t simply dismiss and replace you. It provides a system for adjudicating bad calls, and a way to determine which umps and refs are good and should be on the field in the first place without filtering that determination through a team owner’s (or league management’s) lens — and, as people have now noticed, good officiating isn’t necessary to improve those people’s bottom lines.
And while it’s true that the lock-out is partly about the league’s desire to freeze current ref’s retirement pay, it’s also about that training that unions provide their members. The league wants 21 more refs, but they want the salary pool that is split between all the refs to remain unchanged — i.e., they want everyone who currently has the job to earn less money in order to train their own subs and eventual replacements. (One rumored deal, as of press time, is that the subs won’t be paid out of the salary pool until they are fully trained and added to the roster, at which point the pool will be adjusted.) Can you imagine not only being asked to train your own replacement, but to pay him or her out of your own salary?
A lot has been written about why good refs are important to the integrity of the game and the health of the players, and certainly the owners are happy to portray the unions as greedy and the refs as overpaid (a song everyone’s heard ad infinitum about union workers the last few years). But as someone who umped on both side of the union divide, I can say from experience that the union training benefited me and the players for whom I officiated, knowing the union had my back made me more sure of myself after good-but-unpopular calls and made me more firm with bullying coaches and parents (including coaches and parents who bullied their own kids), and it definitely helped develop and mentor the next generation of umps without sacrificing the benefits of seniority.
**Two disputes that the league officiated come to mind here. In one, several team fathers followed an umpire out to his car and physically threatened him after a game. The union and the league sided with the ump, and the fathers were banned from attending. In another, a particularly attractive male umpire proved detrimental to the concentration of a number of teenage girls on a softball team. He was, with great teasing from his fellow members, voluntarily no longer assigned to umpire for 13-15-year-old girls.
[“Female Soccer Referee Showing A Red Card” on Shutterstock]