As we wait for the outcome of the most high-profile labor dispute currently happening in America, the Chicago Teachers Union strike, I want to call attention to the other big labor action out there. National Football League referees have been locked out of the job since the beginning of the year. Four weeks of preseason and two weeks of the regular season have been officiated by scabs, replacement referees from college and even high school. The NFL had to remove one referee from a New Orleans Saints game after he was outed as a fan of the team; another scab was recruited from the Lingerie Football League.

The crews that have officiated the games have been horrible, and the sports press has taken notice. Yesterday’s Monday night game between Atlanta and Denver was marred by several questionable calls and the inability to perform basic functions like spotting the ball. In many cases the refs appear to not know the rules, and they have proven themselves unable to handle any tensions between teams that have resulted in cheap shots and fights. Play is ugly and everyone knows it.

It turns out that officiating an NFL game performed at top speed is not something any old ref can just come in to do. The referees being locked out have unique skills that both ensure the smooth flow of play and protect the players from harm. The NFL has in other contexts called the referees the first responders, the “emergency technicians” of the NFL. But a league claiming to be concerned about the health and safety of its players has taken the first responders off the field.

What are the issues in the lockout? The referees’ union wants better pay, higher staffing levels and the ability to arbitrate over their salaries. But the NFL wants to freeze their pensions. In the grand scheme of things, referee pensions cost almost nothing to the 30 richest team owners in America. It’s a rounding error. But you get the sense that this hardball they’re playing with the refs is a warning shot for the players when their contract comes up again.

“The key is the pension issue,” (NFL Referees Association head Scott) Green told HuffPost, adding that the pensions have been around since the mid-1970s. “A lot of our guys have made life-career decisions based on assuming that pension would be there.” [...]

Mike Arnold, the lawyer leading negotiations for the union, insists the referees were “all shocked” by the pension proposal, given the league’s sound financial footing. He said the union simply wanted the same pay raises and benefit packages laid out in its 2006 contract. According to Green, referees earn between $4,000 and $8,000 per game, depending on experience.

Arnold argued that the league’s 121 referees shouldn’t lose their defined benefit plans just because workers elsewhere are losing theirs. The union has told the league it would accept a grandfather system in which current refs keep their current plans and new hires get 401(k)s, but the owners aren’t biting. Arnold also said the refs don’t merely take issue with the type of account they’d be switched to — the league’s retirement contributions would be trimmed significantly, according to Arnold’s calculations.

This is part of a long-standing pattern of taking away defined-benefit pensions and replacing them with defined-contribution ones. But seeing the NFL try to do it to 121 referees – and to lock them out of their jobs in the process while they play hardball over it – is just unconscionable. We’re talking about $20,000 a year, per person, for retirement contributions.

NFL referees aren’t even full-time employees. Most work other jobs during the rest of the year, and referee during the few months of the regular season and playoffs.

You would think the terrible officiating would spark some consciousness in the fans, and increase demand to get the real refs back on the field. But the league is banking on the fact that the fans don’t understand the issue and don’t really care, allowing them to knuckle under the referee’s union for a few measly bucks. This has the potential to be a major labor issue but the league has so far been impervious to criticism. Likewise, players have carped about the bad officiating, but done little to pressure the NFL to get the professionals back on the field.

The players got locked out in 1987 and replaced with scabs, and the fans did respond by tuning out the season. I vividly remember fights in the parking lot in Philadelphia, with union members trying to stop people from going into the games. There hasn’t been the same concern for the refs. Fans and players alike have crossed the picket line. But this is just as critical an example of wealthy management interests crushing labor and forcing them to accept less. In this case, the owners can easily afford to put out the best product every week. They simply don’t want to. And everyone suffers from the result. The situation is replicated in practically every corporation and factory in America. And silence is roughly equivalent to compliance.