Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: NASCAR Drivers’ Union Probably Not a Good Idea

After Tony Stewart‘s verbal assault on Goodyear gained support amongst a number of high-profile fellow drivers (albeit not quite as aggressively as Stewart), some journalists suggested that the time just may be ripe for the formation of a drivers’ union. Unions are great! I come from a long line of union guys that have walked the lines in hopes of gaining a livable wage, safer work conditions or medical insurance. There’s no bigger supporter of labor unions than me.

However, the odds of NASCAR drivers answering the call of solidarity and organizing themselves in unity to defend themselves against the “man” under the union banner are next to none; and for any number of reasons.

One of the big problems in organizing to bargain with NASCAR is that they are not the drivers’ employer and are under no obligation to even recognize their bargaining group. Drivers actually are under contract to a team owner and negotiate their own labor agreements, generally aided by an agent, with the individual owners. Pretty much all the big issues such as salary, bonuses, appearance fees, souvenir sales percentages, number of workdays and length of the agreement are wrapped up in the contract between the driver and his owner. That really doesn’t leave much more for a drivers’ union to do.

But for the sake of argument, suppose that I am wrong and the NASCAR drivers’ union takes flight because the majority of drivers threw caution to the wind and told their owners they didn’t care what they thought. Next buy in to the idea that NASCAR, in a moment of weakness, decided that it would be a good idea to recognize the new union and negotiate issues with them – issues that in many cases that will affect the privately owned NASCAR’s bottom line. Though it certainly would be a big stretch to believe that the sanctioning body would voluntary concede to allow drivers or any one else to put a finger in their pie, but we’re just supposing here.

Now with the drivers solidly in support of their bargaining committee, they enter into negotiations with NASCAR on matters of specific concern to them. After lengthy and intense negotiations they do not reach agreement. Now what? Well, one of the tools a traditional labor union has at it disposal when an impasse is reached is to withdraw their labor until a satisfactory accord can be reached. Or more commonly referred to as, Strike! In the end, unions and managers understand that the ultimate weapon in an employees bargaining toolbox is to withhold their labor. And if for no other reason, this alone is where the newly formed union quickly dissolves.

Imagine if you will, a Jeff Gordon telling his team owner Rick Hendrick that he refuses to be in the Dupont No. 24 the next weekend and future races as well until NASCAR agrees to, well, whatever. Be assured that Hendrick, regardless of how nice a guy he may be, would not assure Gordon that he, his hundreds of employees and the sponsor support his decision and will close up shop until the drivers prevail. And of course it would then be necessary to believe that all the other team owners are likewise committed to standing by their driver, even if it may mean financial ruin for them. This might be more imagining than even John Lennon sang of.

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There are some well-known historical references that can be drawn on to realistically predict how NASCAR would react to the introduction of a drivers’ union. Most notably, the 1961 attempt by a superstar in the early days of the organization, Curtis Turner, who sought to have the Teamsters represent NASCAR drivers. The end result of that was NASCAR declaring that Turner was banned for life. Although Bill France Sr. later lifted Turner’s ban, the Teamsters were never seen or heard from again on pit road.

Then of course there was the infamous 1969 walkout at Talladega of 37 drivers, led by the era’s most famous stock car driver and President of the newly formed Professional Drivers Association (PDA), Richard Petty. France Sr. stared down the PBA, gathered a group of drivers from preliminary races, including last week’s winning car owner, Richard Childress, and ran the event on schedule. Within weeks the PDA ceased to exist and the drivers returned to NASCAR.

Today’s drivers by-and-large know that unionizing truly is not practical. Further, it is not an issue raised by drivers and has been primarily a media-driven topic. The aforementioned Gordon certainly doesn’t see it as being feasible. The four-time NASCAR Cup champion, when asked about the possibility of organizing said, “A union is a good thing only if the right people are managing it and the proper intent is there. The problem is nobody can guarantee that. We all have so many different agendas and ideas, to see them all come together as one could be tough,” he said.

Though Gordon, as well as other well-respected drivers, did recognize that there needed to be a forum that drivers have available to them to officially address driver concerns with the sanctioning body.

Give the two-time NASCAR Cup champion Stewart his due credit. He saw what he believed to be a genuine safety concern in respect to the tire compound Goodyear had brought and decided that someone had to say something. So he did. After doing so, other drivers with similar concerns spoke out in agreement with Stewart. Goodyear initiated a meeting with the Indiana native to no doubt defuse the situation. Expect there to be improvements in the product that Goodyear brings to the track as a result of the drivers’ support of Stewart, and rightfully so.

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Concerns regarding safety are one area that NASCAR would be especially foolhardy to ignore drivers’ opinions on. Their perspective should not only be allowed, but also welcomed and appreciated. There are of course other issues of safety, emergency care, scheduling, security, etc., that drivers would like to see addressed. Presently there is no official means for them to voice their concerns.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who spoke out in support of Stewart, believes that there does need to be someone to speak for the drivers in a fashion that his father was known to do. Others have suggested an ad hoc committee or panel of drivers be selected to meet and discuss issues with NASCAR managers.

Dale Jarrett, a 24-year veteran of Cup racing is in favor of selecting a panel consisting of three to five drivers to present driver issues to NASCAR, an idea that other drivers seemed comfortable with. “We won’t use that word union. That gets people stirred up,” said Jarrett. “Does there need to be a panel? Yes, it could be really helpful.”

Given the probably insurmountable difficulties in forming a drivers’ union, a committee of drivers selected by their peers to speak on behalf of them would seem to be a doable deal. All they would be asking for from NASCAR is to be heard. They would only be an asset to the organization and the sport. And in the event that the organization balked at recognizing them, they could always take their case to the media with added legitimacy as elected spokesmen until NASCAR did agree to at least listen.

Heck, any driver could feel pretty good with a group consisting of guys like Stewart, Jeff Burton, Dale Jr., Gordon and Mark Martin going down to Daytona and lobby in unison on their behalf. It would seem very unlikely that NASCAR could ignore them.

And that’s my view from Turn 5.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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