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Brad Plumer: The referee dispute is part of a trend

When it comes to pro football, the usual rules of politics apparently take a time-out.

When a controversial call by a replacement referee led to a Green Bay Packers loss on Monday night, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, called for the return of the NFL's regular unionized officials, who have been locked out by the league's owners.

"After catching a few hours of sleep, the #Packers game is still just as painful. #Returntherealrefs," Walker wrote on Twitter early Tuesday.

The statement raised more than a few eyebrows because Walker made national headlines last year when he pushed to strip Wisconsin's public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

But he sounded less enthusiastic about the outcome of the NFL's hard-line stance against its unionized workers.

"I don't think this has anything to do with unions, but has everything to do with refs making bad calls," Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie later told Sports Illustrated.

In many ways, however, the referee feud is fairly representative of modern labor battles playing out in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

In the NFL dispute, one of the biggest sticking points, as Dave Jamieson explains, involves pensions.

The league wants to replace the defined-benefit pensions for referees that have been in place since the 1970s with riskier and stingier 401(k)s. The referees, by contrast, point out that the NFL hauls in $9 billion per year and can afford to provide generous retirement packages.

That echoes the growing number of fights between unions and private companies in recent years over retirement plans. Many large U.S. corporations are looking to shed their expensive defined-benefit pensions in favor of defined-contribution 401(k)s.

General Motors, Verizon, and American Airlines have all pushed to freeze their defined-benefit plans over the past few years, often tussling with unions in the process.

Typically, the freeze means that employees within the plan no longer accrue further benefits, while new workers are barred from joining altogether.

Those disputes can turn ugly.

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.


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