Feb. 13, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Senators Say Northwestern Unionization Effort Prompts Important Questions

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Blumenthal, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said his panel would have partial jurisdiction over the student-athlete employment question. The Connecticut Democrat said the panel should consider looking into the issue.

Though legislative recourse might be difficult, according to multiple sources, the most significant way lawmakers could grow the issue is just by talking about it. One K Street source familiar with sports lobbying pointed to the dual tracks any issue can take — legislative and public relations — and noted that most sports questions have gravitated toward the publicity side of that equation. That approach is especially attractive in this case, the source said, because it involves players at a Chicago-area university who could draw the attention of home-state President Barack Obama. Obama, who says he watches “SportsCenter” daily, has weighed in on college football issues, such as the playoff question, and a visit from the players to D.C. would not go unnoticed.

Given the involvement of national labor groups, which are looking to expand membership for their influence to survive, that D.C. echo-chamber effect could be coming soon.

“Too many athletes who generate huge sums of money for their universities still struggle to pay for basic necessities, and too many live in fear of losing their scholarships due to injury or accident,” Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union that is backing the Northwestern Wildcats players, said in a statement. “Our commitment to college athletes in their pursuit of basic protections will not cease.”

Democrats could have a particular stake in this debate, not only because they are the party more philosophically aligned with the labor movement but because they also are the party that profits from it. In 2012, for example, USW made $3.1 million in political contributions, all to Democrats, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.org. Union members have also been crucial for Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts, especially in the Midwest. In 2008, when the current in-cycle senators were last on the ballot, USW gave $15,500 to Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota and $10,000 each to Tom Harkin of Iowa, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. The group also spent $5,000 in Mary L. Landrieu’s race in Louisiana and $5,000 in Michigan for Debbie Stabenow.

But the football players, unions and their supporters have a long way to go to secure the benefits they’re seeking. And although they might not get them at all, they’re encouraged by the conversation and hoping it gets louder.

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