The Frontstretch: Driver's Union: Probably Not A Good Idea by Tommy Thompson -- Wednesday March 19, 2008

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Driver's Union: Probably Not A Good Idea

Tommy Thompson · Wednesday March 19, 2008


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 Driver's Union. Union's 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 union's 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 driver's 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 Driver's 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.

Despite their friendship, Rick Hendrick would have to put his business interests ahead of loyalty if push came to shove between him and his drivers.

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.

There are some well-known historical references that can be drawn on to realistically predict how NASCAR would react to the introduction of a driver's 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 stockcar 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 weeks 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 Jeff 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 Tony 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 driver's support of Stewart…and rightfully so.

Concerns' regarding safety is 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 driver's 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., Jeff 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

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03/19/2008 08:53 AM

Anytime one hears of “UNION” talk, it simply is a matter of the “EMPLOYER” becoming too big for their britches! I.E. NA$CAR!

NA$CAR these days acts as the ARROGANT MASTER and no one else matters or counts!

If NA$CAR did come up with a plan to allow the drivers “some” input, and I don’t mean any window-dressing, then the matter of a “Drivers Organization” would go away and fast!

In the past, F-1 as an example, whenever they formed drivers groups it was precipitated by the “apparent” lack of concern by the organizers re: Driver Safety!

And bottom line, I think that is what the current discussions within the NA$CAR ranks are reflecting: DRIVER SAFETY! ALA GOODYEAR TIRES! And possibly the CoT not being a good car to drive!

When ones very life is threatened, then strange things happen!

03/19/2008 11:19 AM

Wow Douglas!!!Well said and absolutely correct!!
Also, I think this a first….I am in total accord with your statements. Brian has become a god or so he thinks!!

Margo L
03/19/2008 01:10 PM

While a drivers union might be a stretch , a team owners union would be able to accomplish almost anything they wanted . In the days of the great Curtis Turner , the drivers didn’t have much choice in where to race . Threaten Bill France and there were few other places to race . The climate now is far better for drivers who were to strike . The 800 pound gorilla in the room is Bruton Smith . Hates the France family . Has most of the best race tracks and apparently can afford to buy or build even more . You can bet that he would jump at the chance to start his own series along with the former NASCAR teams . Now the drivers would have a very good option .And if the drivers ever decided to strike , and not show up for a race , NASCAR would back down because they have far more to lose than they did in days past .Event sponsorships and tv deals for example . And NASCAR would fold under threat of a strike because there is no longer a Bill France to deal with . Only a very incompetent pretender and his equally inept and ineffective staff .
I’m not convinced that teams , and their sponsors wouldn’t go along with a drivers union . Decisions that were made would likely benefit all of the above , including decisions to strike . Anything that would improve the sorry organization called NASCAR would be welcome by all .

Kevin in SoCal
03/19/2008 01:19 PM

Unions are terrible. Unions are the reasons why items made in the United States cost so much more. Unions are the reason why the Big 3 auto makers are struggling and companies like Toyota and Honda without unions are doing fine. Unions are the reason why American cars are perceived as lower quality than their comparitive Japanese and German equivalents. There was a time and place for unions 100 years ago when working conditions truely were horrible. But nowadays, union exist only to line their own pockets with money for doing less work, and that drives up the cost of doing business in America. And striking is dishonerable. If you dont like the way your job is treating you, you are perfectly free to find another job. Going on strike just screws the common man with less service and higher prices during the strike, and the company then has to raise prices even more to pay off the union demands. No thank you!

03/19/2008 02:15 PM

First, I am not a “union” type guy, in fact in a lot of the manufacturing plants I managed my first job usually was to head off a union drive!

With that said, when I walked into some of these plants, I could really understand why the employees were thinking union!

What is one to do?

If no threat of a union exists, the employees (generally) get treated very poorly! (mmm, did I say NA$CAR?)

If a union exists, then the union generally becomes as arrogant as the employer!

It is not exactly a “win-win” situation either way!

It is almost a “lose-lose” situation either way!

What a classic dilemma!

BUT!!! Something needs to “level” the NA$CAR playing field!

And last but not least! Thank you Johnboy60! May I keep up the good work!

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