AUSTIN, Texas -- If good help is hard to find, just how expendable is expertise?
In a year of strife between worker and manager, NFL referees found themselves with a bargaining chip that Chicago teachers, striking bulldozer builders and locked-out sugar makers lacked: a staggering blunder by overmatched replacements, resulting in a worst-case, told-ya-so fiasco laid bare for millions to watch in disbelief on national television.
On Wednesday, the NFL and the referees' union appeared on the brink of ending a three-month stalemate, two days after the Green Bay Packers lost a game they would have won if not for a less adept crew of replacement officials.
The whole mess -- and pretty much everyone involved agrees it is precisely that -- puts the spotlight on a nebulous notion that is often overlooked when it works as it's supposed to: the question of expertise.
Workers leverage theirs by going on strike, while lockouts are a bet by management that they can make do without it. It's an impasse that usually plays out on picket lines and private bargaining tables, and the fight has trended in recent years toward management.
But few unions have benefited as much as the NFL's striped shirts from such a high-profile validation of the value of expertise. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, from rank-and-file laborers to the most senior of American managers, this one has hit home.
"The big difference is that 100 million people can see football on TV, so the mistakes are glaring," said Mark Froemeke, who's been locked out of his job as a loader-operator at an American Crystal Sugar Co. plant in East Grand Forks, Minn., for 14 months. "The mistakes that the scabs are making in the factories are behind closed doors."
Froemeke said he knows the people hired as replacements for the 1,300 locked-out union workers inside the plants are bumbling with beet slicers and unable to dry pulp in techniques passed down through generations. "If the farmers and the management want to be like the NFL owners and deny it, that's what they're going to do. But nevertheless, it's the reality."
Ken Margolies, a senior associate at the Worker Institute at Cornell University, said the instant upper hand that NFL referees commandeered this week is increasingly rare for uniquely skilled workers in labor disputes. One major culprit is technology: tool-and-die workers in the auto industry couldn't be replaced easily before automation, and management can now outsource jobs like customer service to overseas.
The NFL referee lockout, he said, is most recently comparable to the 2007 writer's strike in Hollywood in terms of profile. But Margolies said he couldn't recall such a "blatant example" where a labor standoff turned on this kind of debacle.
"It's just so obvious that people couldn't be replaced and get the same result," he said.
Attitudes about expertise can also make it a risky hand to play in a negotiation, depending on who's on the other side of the table. The idea that no one is irreplaceable and there's always a guy next in line willing to do the job runs deep in America. Professing expertise can also bring on suspicions of elitism and scratch an itch to knock someone down a peg.
Other work stoppages around the U.S. this year also illustrate the role of expertise, albeit in varying ways:
-- In Houston, Adrianna Vasquez makes $8.60 an hour doing what she knows people think is the world's most replaceable job: She's a janitor. When the 37-year-old returned in August to resume cleaning the 100 toilets on 10 floors in a downtown Chase Bank tower after a citywide janitor strike that won a 12 percent raise, Vasquez said the bathrooms cleaned by replacement crews looked like stalls in a seedy bar. "I just wanted to cry when I saw it," she said.
-- In New York, Consolidated Edison locked out 8,000 workers in July and brought in replacements from other states to work power lines and operate the grid. It ended just as severe storms hit and threatened power outages. "Not enough people that knew what they were doing," said John Melia, a spokesman for the Local 1-2 of the Utility Workers Union of America.
-- In Illinois, where the Chicago teachers' strike kept 350,000 students out of class for a week this month, a lesser-known strike began in May at a Caterpillar Inc. plant. The heavy machinery manufacturer hired replacement workers and the strike ended in August in what was widely seen as a victory for the company. John Hunt, 51, said he saw what appeared to be empty and lightly loaded shipping trucks leaving the plant under the replacement workers, but he never saw it as a turning point. "The company's line was, 'Doing great and we're not hurting production.'"
The NFL referees' union wants improved salaries, better retirement benefits and resolution of some other logistical issues. The NFL is proposing a pension freeze and a higher 401(k) match; the union is balking because of the greater risk to the nest egg that comes with the loss of a defined benefit.
For American Crystal Sugar, which locked out employees in five factories in three states, vice president Brian Ingulsrud acknowledged that the union workers are "very skilled" and said it was a "big challenge" to bring in replacements. He said the company worked hard at training the new workers in the months when the plants were not processing beets.
"It was a learning curve, there was no doubt," Ingulsrud said. "Last year we did have some bumps in terms of working through that. We feel we're on the right side of the curve right now."
The sugar executive, by the way, thought the right call was made at the end of the Monday night football game.
"When I saw the replay," Ingulsurd said, "it was really the case where the tie goes to the offensive guy."