In November 2011, American Airlines filed for bankruptcy and sought to modify its pension plans for some 130,000 employees. (By one count, only about 45 percent of its $18.5 billion in pension liabilities were funded.)
The company has proposed freezing defined-benefit plans for flight attendants, ground crews and mechanics, while terminating one retirement plan for pilots altogether.
Such proposals have triggered a backlash from workers. Sick rates among pilots have mysteriously jumped 20 percent since last year, according to the company, and cancellations and delays are rising.
In the Wall Street Journal, Ellen Schultz, the author of "Retirement Heist," recently explained why so many private companies were paring back their pension plans:
"Because the benefits are recorded as debts on a company's books, reducing the debt generates paper gains," which make firms appear more profitable.
Over in the public sector, meanwhile, states and municipalities have also targeted the pension plans of workers like police and firefighters, particularly as the weak economy has squeezed local budgets.
A task force led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker found that 126 state and local pension plans had a shortfall of between $891 billion and $3 trillion, thanks in large part to the financial crisis. As a result, some 29 states, including California and New York, enacted pension reform last year, up from 21 in 2010.
Unions have frequently threatened to challenge these changes in court.
This week, a group representing 18,000 employees at Los Angeles City Hall threatened to sue if the City Council enacted a plan to save up to $50 million by rolling back pension benefits and raising the retirement age.
In that sense, the battle between the NFL and its referees isn't particularly unusual.
It just happens to be particularly well publicized.
Plumer is a reporter at The Washington Post.