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Colin Kaepernick’s Exile Is a Labor Rights Violation

Unions should come to his defense

Kitanya Harrison
Jul 16, 2018 · 5 min read
Brooklyn barbers’ strike of 1913, Union Sq., New York City. (Public domain, United States Library of Congress)

Over 500 days. That’s how long Colin Kaepernick — a qualified, unionized worker — has been unable to ply his trade. I’ve followed Kaepernick’s case closely, and I write about him frequently, so I had a rough idea of how long he’d been in banishment. Nevertheless, I was taken aback when I saw the number written down.

500 days.

There’s something about the roundness of the number that shocks the conscience. It concretizes the severity of the punishment Kaepernick has been forced to endure for engaging in a silent protest against racialized police brutality and inequality. It’s so disproportionate, so vindictive, so disgraceful. It’s also clearly deliberate.

Kaepernick is being excluded from an arena in which men who beat women, who abuse animals, who have killed other human beings, are welcome. Each day of his exile is a warning about what will not be forgiven: the silent protest of legitimate, long-standing grievances that make America unjust. “Look at what we’ll do to you,” is the warning to the other players, to other workers. Thankfully, Eric Reid (who has now joined Kaepernick on the blacklist) and others have refused to bow their heads.

What often gets lost in all the disingenuous shouting about the “rules governing appropriate displays of patriotism” is that Kaepernick is embroiled in a labor dispute. He’s a member of a union (a flaccid one, but a union nonetheless) that negotiated a more than 300-page collective bargaining agreement with the NFL. Anyone carping about the unwritten “rules” Kaepernick and others should have followed are curiously silent about the legally-binding rules that limit the owners’ powers — rules that are meant to protect the players, the workers.

Kaepernick is being excluded from an arena in which where men who beat women, who abuse animals, who have killed other human beings, are welcome.

Unions in America have been gutted and busted for decades. The recent Supreme Court decision in Janus v. A.F.C.S.M.E., coupled with new edicts coming down from the Trump regime, suggests that the end is near. As working class Americans lose these battles, it may seem untoward to have them focus their energies on a multi-millionaire quarterback. Nevertheless, that’s what’s in order.

Kaepernick’s situation is often compared to Jackie Robinson’s. I confess to having been familiar with only the Hollywood version of baseball’s desegregation. I had no idea that the nineteen-thirties saw a strong movement on the part of radical labor organizations and unions to break baseball’s color barrier. There was an understanding that labor is labor, and that unfairly denying a worker — any worker — the opportunity to practice his trade is an affront to the rights and dignity of work itself.

Tweet shared by Dave Zirin about the role of unions in ending segregation in baseball

As I’ve written before, every American who has to work to maintain their lifestyle (which is to say, all but a handful of Americans) should be concerned about what happens to Colin Kaepernick. Unemployment is being used as punishment, as retaliation. If owners can do this to a unionized millionaire who can afford top-notch legal representation, what can they do to your broke behind?

Wages in America have remained stagnant even as worker productivity has grown. Income inequality is reaching levels not seen since the run-up to the Great Depression. If we don’t recalibrate, the implosion of the American middle class will take down the whole economy. Old and emerging labor-rights movements will be at the center of this battle.

We’re living through an awakening. Capitalism isn’t the sacred cow it used to be. It isn’t working, and most of us are willing to call a spade a spade in ways we weren’t even a decade ago. Many who work harder and produce more than their parents will never enjoy a stable, middle-class lifestyle. Many expect to never retire. Young workers are crushed by student loans, and degraded by poorly paid internships and entry-level positions (if they’re paid at all). They long to organize.

What does Colin Kaepernick have to do with all this?

He’s the worker at the center of the most high-profile labor dispute in America. Over 500 days since he’s been employed, his name still makes headlines and gets clicks. Think about the lifespan of most news stories. Think about this one.

It’s an opportunity. A jumping off point for a larger discussion about workers’ rights as a whole. Organized labor needs a boost; it needs to be in the news; it needs to show its value to a generation of young workers flailing under the abuse of poor wages and no benefits. Standing next to Kaepernick, standing with him, supporting him, can accomplish this.

Capitalism isn’t the sacred cow it used to be.

The NFLPA is an anemic union. It isn’t going to punch hard enough to make a dent. Kaepernick needs more help. I understand that there may be many union members who’ve bought into the line that Kaepernick’s protest was disrespectful. To that, I ask, “So what if it was?” Every union has that member, some jerk they can’t stand who’s always stepping in it. But you defend them, because they’re your union brother or sister. When the punishment is outside the bounds of what was negotiated, the union raises a stink.

What’s happening to Kaepernick right now is outside the bounds of what was negotiated in his union contract. In a free country, taking a stand against that is more important than getting a rightfully aggrieved citizen to stop kneeling during a song. Union members who don’t like Kaepernick or his protest should be his most vociferous defenders. Protest is never grounds to take away someone’s job.

Colin Kaepernick and his fellow professional football players are genetic freaks of nature. They possess vanishingly rare talents that generate billions in revenue. They do their jobs at great risk to their long-term physical and mental health. Their share of the pie is actually relatively small, and collective bargaining — the union — is the only reason they make as much as they do. Other workers deserve the same consideration — a bigger piece of the pie they’re baking.

When one worker’s labor is devalued, every worker’s labor is devalued. Colin Kaepernick’s ability to work in his chosen profession has been destroyed in service to silencing an uncomfortable political protest. He’s broken no rules or laws. The collective bargaining agreement his union negotiated contravenes his treatment. The owners have shown themselves to be oathbreakers. This is a labor rights issue, and organized labor should get involved. Numbers matter. Colin Kaepernick and organized labor could be helping one another get the numbers they need. And we could be helping them both.

Written by

*squinting in Nanny of the Maroons* | Read my essay collection, DISPOSABLE PEOPLE, DISPOSABLE PLANET: books2read.com/u/mBOYNv | IG: kitanyaharrison

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