WORK! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment.

Labor Leaders – JC Tretter ‘13

August 11, 2020 Cornell ILR School Season 1 Episode 8
WORK! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment.
Labor Leaders – JC Tretter ‘13
Chapters
WORK! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment.
Labor Leaders – JC Tretter ‘13
Aug 11, 2020 Season 1 Episode 8
Cornell ILR School

JC Tretter ’13, the newly-elected president of the National Football League Players Association and Dean Alex Colvin discuss the NFL’s tumultuous spring – from the latest collective bargaining agreement, to COVID-19, to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Fill out this short questionnaire to provide feedback, or to suggest a guest or topic for a future episode.

Learn more about ILR by visiting us on the web at ilr.Cornell.edu

Show Notes Transcript

JC Tretter ’13, the newly-elected president of the National Football League Players Association and Dean Alex Colvin discuss the NFL’s tumultuous spring – from the latest collective bargaining agreement, to COVID-19, to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Fill out this short questionnaire to provide feedback, or to suggest a guest or topic for a future episode.

Learn more about ILR by visiting us on the web at ilr.Cornell.edu

Julie GrecoJulie Greco :

Work is all around us. It defines us. The future of work impacts nearly every person on our planet. And the ILR School at Cornell University is influencing policy and practice around the world. In this episode of "Work! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment," Dean Alex Colvin speaks with ILR alumus and newly elected President of the NFL Players Association, JC Treeter.

Alex Colvin :

Very pleased to welcome today, one of our alumni, JC Treeter, who is the President of NFL Players Association. And we're really proud to have a new union leader amongst our alumni. We've got a couple from long standing service Randi Weingarten of the teachers and Bruce Rayner, back with Unite, formerly, but glad to see JC amongst that group of proud alumni. So welcome very much.

JC Tretter :

Thank you for having me.

Alex Colvin :

All right. So you've actually only been on the job a few months now. And you're obviously coming into the job with a lot of stuff going on. Sure, this is a quite a busy time for you dealing with all the things that have been happening with a collective agreement, but now with COVID-19 impacts everything going on. But I was interested to kind of start off with what drew you to getting involved with the NFLPA? Were there any inspirations that you look to? What drew you in?

JC Tretter :

Yeah, I think obviously, early on in my career, I wasn't a rep. Wasn't that involved with the union in a leadership level. Obviously, I understood what was going on and stayed involved that way. But early on in my career, I had a lot of injuries. I broke both my legs. And a lot of it was trying to focus on making sure I could continue to be a professional football player first and trying to you know, earn a starting job and then stay in the league for a considerable amount of time. And as time went on, I became more comfortable in my preparation, what it took to be ready what it took to be healthy. I felt like I wanted to get more involved, obviously with the ILR background was something that I kind of went into college passionate about and then left and didn't really have a use for my degree right away. And then I wanted to start getting more involved. So when I came over from Green Bay to the Cleveland Browns, I ran and became one of their union reps. And then this offseason, once the season ended, I knew that our president was rolling off, this was his final term. And I made the decision, like I want to just run for president. I kind of relate it for in football terms of not being a Monday morning quarterback anymore. And you know if there are things that you want to see changed or things you have ideas, instead of kind of sitting off on the sidelines and being like "Man, I wish they would do this," instead just like, go do it and go get involved. And that was something again, I enjoyed my time learning about this stuff at Cornell. And I figured this would be a perfect time to kind of put it to use while I'm still doing this kind of separate career and bringing the ILR into that career.

Alex Colvin :

Yeah, I think it's something that people don't always realize is that becoming a union leader isn't like getting you know, hired for a job like being a manager, you actually have to run to lead the organizations, like running to be like school class president or something. What was it like running for this elected position? Have you ever done anything like that before?

JC Tretter :

No. So this was the first like election I've ever been involved in. And it was a really neat process. It was it was a tiring process. You go down we have a yearly rep meeting in Miami, Florida. We've got every team brings in their reps and their player leaders, so we've got about like, 180 guys there. Each rep., each team has one voting rep. So you're gonna have a vote of the 32 people are going to vote in the kind of, you have to have the majority to gain the position. So you, we had four people running we had three members of the executive committee who are on the kind of the the high leadership council who were running and then me, I was running as just a, a rep off the floor. So eventually one of the EC members had dropped out of the election. So the the three people left, we had to give like a five to 10 minute speech about kind of what we want to bring to the position. And then we separated into I think, like five or six rooms with five or six teams in each room with their voting rep, and then all their other team leaders, and you just kind of round robin through the rooms for 20 minutes at a time. And they could just ask you any question at that time, the CBA was still being voted on. So people didn't know whether it was going to pass whether it was going to fail. So there's a lot of uncertainty of you know, if this passes, who's the best person for this, if this fails, we have to go back to negotiate who's the best person to lead us. So, there were a lot of questions trying to figure out both if this passes, where do you take us from here? And if this fails, what what's your strategy going back to the bargaining table with one year left on the on the current deal?

Alex Colvin :

Yeah. And so you really have to get that support across from all your peers. Right. This is, you know, collective decision they're making. You know, it was really striking, you know, when you're talking about the early part of your career and dealing with, you know, injuries in front of make sure that you really had a career as a professional player. I mean, I think that must be one of the really challenging things with doing a CBA for for the players is that you've got the star players who, you know, get a lot of attention. You know, we think of the Aaron Rodgers, the Russell Wilsons right with a set of amazing contracts that they get, but you're representing a whole membership of, you know, people who, you know, have shorter careers, right. You know, sometimes in the league for two or three years, maybe on practice squads earning much less money and you represent all of those. You talk about that kind of challenge, right? Because you got to balance all of those different constituents there.

JC Tretter :

Yeah, that was something we especially focused on during the negotiations for this CBA, where we'd seen in the 2011 CBA, it kind of, the the minimum salary players and the back of the end roster guys kind of got left behind in that previous deal. And then the other salaries kept growing and exponential rates, but the minimum salaries weren't growing at that same rate as just a salary cap was growing. So people at the end of, you know, 10 years into the CBA were making less as a percentage than people in the first year, the CBA on minimum salary. It wasn't growing at the same rate. So we were we went into it thinking, how do we remedy that and make it better for those players, and make sure we're not kind of having this huge differential between the stars, and then the back of the roster guys. So we made sure we increase minimum salaries substantially. And we put a big focus on performance based pay, which allows players who are performing at a higher level than their contract dictates, gets up bonus at the end of the season based off how how productive and how many snaps they played. And putting more money into those programs helps those guys get a bigger boost and salary.

Alex Colvin :

Yeah, it's pretty complex. Right? What you do with this with this CBA. I've used it sometimes actually, in teaching in my classes, there's some examples. Students are always interested in taking a look through the NFL CBA. But it's, it's it's pretty complex, and you're dealing with a lot of players, right? You're mostly like young guys, right? You know, they don't have your benefits of having, you know, an ILR degree where you actually studied this stuff. You know, they could come out of any academic background. How do you help educate them? How do you help them understand what's going on with a pretty complex CBA and something that's going to really affect their whole life. This is their kind of prime earning opportunity.

JC Tretter :

Yeah, there's a lot of unique issues that kind of professional athletes, especially football players, with how short our careers are, have to kind of go through and deal with. And just the kind of mentality of sport where for our entire lives through this we've always kind of seen our coaches as the guys that are looking out for our best interests. And then it becomes your job. But for the last 15 years of your life, you've always seen kind of your boss now as like, "oh, he'll protect me." And it's like, "No, like, the union protects you now," and kind of retraining these guys thought processes on kind of where your protection comes from who your allies are in this business. So that's kind of a unique challenge, that probably other jobs don't exactly have to go through. And beyond that, the turnover is kind of a constant churn of not only players in and out of the league, our average career is three years long, but also players between teams. So you can have a rep on one team, the rep on the Browns, who gets cut and picked up by Seattle. Now the Browns have to find a new team Rep. He's no longer a rep at the Seahawks, and you have to retrain the new rep on the Browns to understand all the information. And that happens on a yearly basis where it's just kind of a constant churn of guys. So I think the main thing is communication, and getting systems in place to get people the information they need in order to represent their players and get that information back to their teams in a timely manner.

Alex Colvin :

Yeah, that's a really striking stat when you're dealing with a three year average career, right. That, you know, how do you kind of get people acculturated instead of thinking thinking long, longer term? I mean, I, you know, I think back to when I was like, you know, just graduated from college, that kind of age 21/22 you know, I was still trying to figure stuff out and, you know, a lot of things coming at you, right? And, I'm sure it's, it's, it must be such a dramatic transition going from, you know, the amateur world of the NCAA and, you know, out of college to being working for for a business, right. You know, and being part of this industry of sports. You know, maybe talk about how you know, how that experience was for you and sort of thinking about that kind of transition.

JC Tretter :

Yeah, it's the understanding that it's now your job. And it's been your kind of after school activity, and you're kind of fun hobby for most of your life. And then the moment you sign that contract, you're an employee. And you kind of have to understand that, that you're kind of almost an independent contractor, and you're your own business. And that, like, you have to look out for yourself. But you also have and this is another thing that's unique about our businesses. There's that balance of, I am still part of a team. And you I put you there's a unique issues with being a rep in the NFL, where we have rules on how many hours you're allowed to be at the facility, how many how long your meetings are allowed, how long the practice are allowed to be. And now all of a sudden your coach comes to you and say, like, "Hey, we really need to win this week. We need an extra 30 minutes." And now you're sitting there well as a union leader, this isn't supposed to happen, but I also want to win this week. Yeah. So do I let it slide. And that's something that that probably other you know that there's not that winning in kind of a normal business sense where you think about bending the rules in those instances because your teammates are also need to win to keep their jobs and the coaches need to win to keep their jobs. And that's kind of an extra level of this of understanding what kind of pulls on guys emotions and thoughts on how to best represent their players because people have different needs and interests and wants beyond just kind of sticking to the rules.

Alex Colvin :

Yeah, I mean, you guys are, yeah, you have those, you know, job career interests, but you also have your your elite athletes and you know, you're competitive. You want to kind of perform at the very highest level in a job that's that physically dangerous, right? You're putting your bodies on the line in this job, and you mentioned your own injuries, injuries, and certainly, you know, the health and safety is part of it. Right? You know that question of how far do you push things, you how quickly do you come back from injuries? All those issues are huge health and safety issues. You know, one thing I was curious about is your your unusual situation right now you're in offseason right. Now I understand you know, offseason you're responsible for a lot of stuff yourself, right? And you have to do your own preparation stuff. But this year in a very kind of unusual situation, how has that been affecting you? How does that change this offseason and your personal preparation, all that stuff you do?

JC Tretter :

Yeah. So we negotiated a virtual offseason. So, you know, most most businesses had to go to some sort of virtual program. But obviously, you know, we're dictated by what's in the CBA. And there's there's nothing to talk about what's going on this year. So we can even negotiate from start what a virtual offseason would look like and what protections players needed because usually when we go back to the facilities, and work out were protected in case we get hurt the facilities. Usually, when we're away from the facilities, if we get hurt, we're on our own. We don't have,

Alex Colvin :

Like any insurance kind of thing like insurance?

JC Tretter :

Yeah. Right. So we have non football injuries and football injuries. If you're training on your own, you don't get treated as a football injury even though you're preparing to play football. So this was one where, you know, if teams were going to require a workout in order to get paid, then we fought that then that has to be a football injury because he's doing his job for you. But but that's kind of the unique issue we go with where in our contracts, it says we have to kind of be in shape and ready to play at all times. But also, we're not covered in case we get hurt doing that when we're away from the facility. So it's kind of a, you know, a confusing difference there. But that was something in this virtual offseason that we made sure to fight for because if guys were going to train on their own, especially with gyms closing down when you guys were going to kind of make shift workouts that we wanted to make sure if guys needed or had to do this in order to get paid that they were protected in case they got hurt.

Alex Colvin :

Yeah, right. So some of the guys gets like, you know, a sort of season ending injury or something it's going to

JC Tretter :

Torn peck or, you know, so you know, is running pops his hamstring. That way he's protected and doesn't lose paychecks because of it.

Alex Colvin :

Yeah. Right. Because, yeah. And if you think of only a limited window of a career, right, if you're thinking like, you know, some one has got a three or four year career and one of those years has gone because of this offseason injury that has a huge impact financially right for the player.

JC Tretter :

Right. Absolutely.

Alex Colvin :

When we think about this coming season, that's going to be you know, probably, you know, we don't know exactly what it's gonna look like, but you know, it's going to be different from previous previous seasons. How's the how's the association thinking about the planning for the coming season? You're role in there and your priorities?

JC Tretter :

Yeah, this has been going on for for two months now in trying to provide a safe workplace and that's, first off, the employers job. That they have to provide a safe workplace for the employees. But obviously we want to kind of have a voice in that and make sure they're up to up to our standards of what a safe workplace is and making sure they they define what how they see a safe workplace. And that's been kind of a long process. So far we've we've been working together with the NFL on it with Joint Task Forces, bringing in expert medical opinions on different issues, from testing to mitigation strategies, cleaning and PPE. Just kind of looking at each issue, and the best way to protect our guys. But but that's the one thing I think people look at this virus and look at football players and athletes in general as kind of indestructible robots of "Oh, like they're those Iron Men who, you know, they go out there every Sunday and get battered and bruised, so like they'll be fine. Just put them out there again." But the virus doesn't exactly work that way. And we're in you know, some of the best shape in the world. But we have players with underlying conditions that that make the risks of getting this virus higher. We've got people with sleep apnea, asthma, high BMI, all kinds of indicators of having really poor results with with this virus. And not only that is we've got players who either live or have elderly parents that live with them, or they have a wife or kid with autoimmune deficiencies. And those are all issues that could be, you know, very problematic in the world of COVID-19. And trying to make sure we provide a safe workplace as well as answers for all their questions. It's not an easy or short process. There's a lot of work that goes into that of making sure everybody's safe.

Alex Colvin :

Yeah, I think that's such an important point that you know, there's both direct effects on on the individual but then, you know, their surrounding family and community is, you know, an essential part of the equation here with with COVID-19 that what we do in the worldplace affects the community were embedded in. You know, we're obviously dealing with that as a university, thinking about how do we safely bring back students to campus, you know, both worried about students because there are some, you know, with, with conditions that make them more vulnerable, but then also the broader community, the people in the local who work in local shops, you know, restaurants, all those people. They're, you know, vulnerable to, because this is, this is kind of a collective thing. We're all and we're all kind of in that together. One of the things that's been interesting, you know, in the COVID-19 pandemic is is there's been different responses across different sports. So yeah, the NBA was kind of prominent early on with a number of players testing positive, early on, but all the different sports have been dealing with it and dealing with it in different ways. And they're like the National Women's Soccer League is going to be the first up and running with a tournament format out in Utah. Do you guys look at what other sports are doing and kind of think about that how those kind of connected arsons are made.

JC Tretter :

Yeah, it's a minor advantage of, we still have time. And we can kind of watch almost test runs go. Now the difference is, I would probably say the sport of football was almost made to transmit this virus. So you know different than baseball, or even basketball. I mean, when you're in the trenches, you are a foot away face to face breathing on each other, which is literally the worst thing you can do. Yeah, with a virus. Right. So So that's kind of the thing that we'll never get a true answer of, how do you help that situation. But looking at other people's protocols and, and what other people are kind of thinking about definitely helps our situation, but we do have some unique issues that we have to kind of deal with on our own.

Alex Colvin :

I'm sure playing playing as a lineman, you're particularly conscious of that, right? I mean, you guys are very close to each other.

JC Tretter:

Right? Yeah. There's there's not a play that there's not some sort of spit or breath on my face from somebody else. And you know, you do that 65-70 times a game. Now that's a lot of exposure if that person is sick.

Alex Colvin :

So another big issue that we think of as well, you know, that's been really prominent off the field as well, is it's been really coming up even more intensely during this period is the issues around the Black Lives Matters protests. Obviously, you know, the NFL had been at the center of this over the last few years with Colin Kaepernick's protests, you know, taking the knee. That was a huge part of the national conversation before the latest wave concerns. The NFLPA obviously has to deal with this. This is an issue. You've got a work membership of your union, that's, you know, I believe, close to 70% black players. So you know, it really is affecting them very directly. You knaw, in an industry with a majority of management that's white. How do you see the role of NFLPA, you know, in this time, you know what, what's what's the NFLPA his role and contribution here?

JC Tretter :

The first is making sure we protect our players' rights. So, when when this first started going with the kneeling, the NFL tried to unilaterally impose restrictions and rules and punishments for people who knelt. And we had to file a grievance because we know that's not how this works. You can't just unilaterally impose things in an agreement. So we fought for that and fought them off of that to can make sure our players continue to have their rights to do what they want and to raise awareness how they want. And then, the next is continuing to work to provide opportunities for players to get involved and promote their, their brands and their platforms. And in the last three weeks or four weeks now, I think guys have really become more aware of just how powerful their platforms are. We had the video go out of a lot of our star players. And a day later, the Commissioner responds. And it just shows, you know, when our voices are united around a cause just how much how much that carries weight. And I think players have really started to truly understand that they have a platform that they've earned through through the work they've done on you know, in the football world. And don't just stick to sports. Don't just stick to just football. Instead, use that platform to branch out into other topics that you're passionate about, that you want to see change in the world and use your voice accordingly.

Alex Colvin :

Yeah, I think was a really important point about the role of protecting players rights of expression. You know, I mean, there's obviously people debate, you know, the particular expression that you're making, right, but there's that fundamental thing of, you know, your rights at work. And and that's, you know, a big part of what the con what a contract does, and having grievance procedure and arbitration. You know, you can, you know, disagree about the results, you know, I remember getting heated debates about the the Deflategate arbitration in some of my classes. Which, you know, students seem to, you know, go different directions, depending on what they felt about the Patriots. Right. But, you know, try to make the point that, you know, okay, that's fine, but, you know, you've got a process there to protect the players rights, right, you know, grievance arbitration. Right. Right. That's, you know, whether you agree or not, right, somebody's got to have a fair way of deciding whether your rights are violated.

JC Tretter :

Absolutely.

Alex Colvin :

People do often look to sports, you know, particularly younger people look to it for kind of inspiration. You know, people people take something for it in terms of standing for that it brings communities together. How do you see the NFL Players Association as an organization, fitting into that kind of role where people look to to sports as role models and inspirations for how things are done. How does it how does that responsibility play for you?

JC Tretter :

Yeah, I think kind of to two different ways of looking at that. First, I kind of look at this as a union issue in that I see the NFL Players Association, though we have differences from other unions, I still see us as part of you know, all the other unions in what they're fighting for. And all unions are fighting for better pay, better benefits, better work rules, better safety measures. And were also in that same fight. We may be talking about different issues that you know, not our, you know, aren't that classic to what a normal workplace looks like, but we're kind of all fighting the same fight. And we should kind of look at each other still as as, you know, Union brothers and and understand that we're all fighting for the same things and and we should support each other for the same way. You know, the next step of that is, you know, people kind of looking to us when it comes to getting back to work and bringing that normal normalcy and bringing that inspiration and kind of people want to watch football again. And I think we want to play football again. I you know, I think that kind of gets lost in translation sometimes with all these fights that are going on with even the money aspect, but also the safety measures and trying to come to agreements with baseball and basketball and football. I think it gets lost in translation at all, like "They don't want to play like they're just trying to duck out of it." We want to play, but also like, we want to be safe and healthy. And we want our families to be safe and healthy. We want the communities to be safe and healthy. And that kind of battle needs to happen in order to guarantee that safety, safety and health.

Alex Colvin :

Yeah, I mean, I think the football is always been a deep part of the national fabric in America. You know, people look to it for a lot of inspiration. But you know, I think they could really take a lot from looking at the NFL Players Association, what it's done as a union and the collective agreement that you guys have negotiated. You know, it's been you know, I know a battle for you, each time to get a good collective agreement, but it does a lot to protect, protect players who are, I think more vulnerable than people realize, right, you know, the line and putting, you know, their careers are on the line, and they go out to work.

JC Tretter :

And I think that's something you know, we talked about the issues with pay and the disparities we have in our in our ranks with pay. I think the safety aspect, health and safety is what unifies us all and needs to be a unifying factor. Because that impacts, no matter how much you're getting paid, how healthy you are, when you leave this game is going to be the same throughout. And making sure we're continuing to fight for better health and safety and, and it you know, originally health and safety meant on the field. Now with this virus, it takes a different definition. But that that's something you look at the 2011 CBA when we got rid of joint practices during training camp or not joint practice, two days. Two-a-day practices in training camp, and we got rid of that. And it was a huge change where people who who participate in those before and after said, "You know, my career was extended at least three years because I didn't go through those joint practices anymore." And I don't think the health and safety debate ever can stop happening. We can never sit back and be like, you know what, I think we've done enough. Let's see where we look like in 10 years. That that can never be okay. And it has to be a continuing push to get safer and get healthier. And, and ideally, you know, what I want to fight for is, I don't want guys to want to play this game because they love it and they they've wanted to do this their entire lives, and by playing it, they've chosen to sacrifice the back half of their life for the front half of their life. And we see the the awful stories and the kind of devastating effects that football has had on on players in the past. And ideally, we'd love to get to a world where guys aren't forced into making that decision of you know, I've chopped years off my life, and good years off my life, spending time with my family after I'm done. And it's a it's a tough weight to carry, but that's why the conversation is so important. And that's why it has to be something we fight for every single day.

Alex Colvin :

I think that's a great lesson for workers in general. You know, health and safety is really a fundamental thing that, you know, we all should have entitlements to us workers and, and it's a long process and bargaining it out and keeping attention to it, you know, is a way that you can make sure that people have a safe workplace that we think we all want. Well, thanks very much, JC. It's been a real pleasure talking to you today. And I want to wish you good luck with the upcoming preparations for the upcoming season. You know, I know that you guys are working hard there. And I think people take a lot of inspiration from that. So thanks very much. I really appreciate all you have to say today.

JC Tretter :

Appreciate. Thanks for having me.

Julie Greco :

Thank you for listening to "Work!" you can subscribe to our podcast at work.ilr.cornell.edu or on iTunes. Do you have a recommendation for a guest or topic to discuss a future episode. Just click on the link in the show notes of this episode, and leave your suggestions. Again. Thank you for listening