Photo depicting a football player raising a white football helmet up to a background of stadium fans.

OPINION | Labor Day Throwback: Remembering the 1987 NFL Strike and the ‘Seattle Sub-Hawks’

by Shaun Scott


While Sunday football is for many an escape from the stressors of the workweek and the anxiety of an increasingly rancorous era in American history, a seldom-recalled episode in U.S. labor history once collapsed the distance between passive spectatorship and the country’s political state of affairs. Thirty-five years ago this autumn, players in the National Football League staged a high-profile strike against stingy owners and team management, withholding their very visible labor power in hopes of securing better pay, bigger pensions, and more freedom of mobility as workers. 

Following a summer of fruitless labor negotiations in which NFL team owners refused to cede to worker demands, the NFL Players Association announced their intention to strike following a Monday Night Football game between the New York Jets and New England Patriots on September 21, 1987. In place of the autumn ritual of televised pigskin, fans for the ensuing weeks were treated to a series of unprecedented bizarre spectacles: contentious showdowns between unionized workers and billionaire owners; fan protests of scab workers; and — perhaps least memorably — terrible football games played by opportunistic replacement players. 

When players on all of the league’s then 28 teams turned in their jerseys and helmets, NFL bosses made a cynical bet: Sure, fans might miss the spectacular play of superstars like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Steve Largent — but the average viewer didn’t know the difference between a long snapper and a tight end, their team’s starting offensive tackle or its second string nickelback. Believing fans to be both uneducated about football and as loathsome of unions as they were, team bosses hired droves of replacement players. 

In the 1987 player strike, NFL teams recruited police officers, mechanics, and factory workers — anybody who had even minimal experience on the field. A concert promoter named Suge Knight played two games as a replacement for the Los Angeles Rams; Minnesota Vikings assistant coach Pete Carroll was nearly named starting quarterback. “I’m just here to make a few bucks,” said a scab Seahawks running back1, inadvertently summarizing the credo of the materialist Reagan years. 

Management turned out to be wrong on two counts: Not only was there a noticeable drop-off in the quality of play when the scab workers crossed the picket line, but many fans cared more about respecting organized labor than they did about a silly pastime where men in tights toppled one another. This was particularly the case in northern cities gutted by the flight of American corporations that waged open war on unions and fled for cheaper labor. Of the four teams where no players crossed the picket line during the three-week strike — Chicago, Minnesota, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. — all were in or near the American Rust Belt

In Philadelphia, fans pelted replacement players with profanity and projectiles, brandishing signs that read “Scabs Suck” and “Fans Against Scabs.” Fans and sportswriters across the country coined mocking monikers, ridiculing the faux-squads assembled by union-busting team owners: the San Francisco Phoney-Niners, Pittsburgh Stealers, Los Angeles Shams, Houston Spoilers, and the Seattle Sub-Hawks.

Seattle had a long tradition of trade union activism, dating back several decades when workers in the city initiated the first large-scale general strike in American history in 1919. After the U.S. Department of Justice found that Seattle-area trades unions systematically denied Black workers entry into area guilds, labor organizer Tyree Scott fought to ensure that minority contractors were included in the construction of the Kingdome, where the Seahawks played their home games. When the Seahawks struck, they were not without comrades in city unions, nor without supporters among the team’s famously engaged fanbase. 

On September 26, 1987, over 1,000 Seattle fans and union members held a labor rally at the Kingdome for striking Seattle Seahawks players.2a 2b Represented among the ranks of organized labor were grocery store workers with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21, concession workers then represented by SEIU Local 6, and electricians with IBEW 77. The striking Seahawks had even received the official support of the King County Labor Council, the local AFL-CIO affiliate representing 75,000 Seattle-area workers at the time. 

In a summary of the NFL labor action in the autumn 1987 edition of the Labor Council’s official newspaper2b, the organization’s executive secretary threw down for the workers in hard hats: “A player has to play four years in the NFL to get his pension, and be age 55 before he can collect it. The average player’s life expectancy after playing four years in the NFL is age 52.”

Along with boxers, football players were America’s paradigmatic specimens of physical grit; but during the strike, fans saw their vulnerability. A Seattle Times write-up of the labor rally quoted an area electrician as saying “You think about how much money they make, and you think they’re greedy. But you have to remember, our careers are going to last 30 or 40 years — theirs aren’t.”2a 

A 74-year-old Seahawks season ticket holder who first joined a union after organizers helped him get a pay raise at a meatpacking plant in Iowa during the Great Depression attended the Seahawks rally as well: “The unions go to extremes sometimes, but they get people good benefits. The players just want security.”

Eventually, the NFL player strike petered out: The union had committed a tactical error in making free agency the public centerpiece of its demands. Because most NFL players wouldn’t have a career that lasted more than a few years, rank-and-file laborers who composed the majority of the league’s workforce had little incentive to continue striking for superstars who would benefit most from free agency. Superstars themselves also seemed eager to get the strike over with: Joe Montana and Eric Dickerson crossed the picket line in the third week of the strike. 

On October 18, 1987, a 10%-capacity crowd in Detroit — a city hit as hard as any by union busting — watched Seattle Seahawk Steve Largent shred the scab Lions for 261 yards. When Seahawks regulars finally returned to the team the following week, union loyalists gave Largent the cold shoulder

If there were more daylight between our sports and our politics, the 1987 NFL player strike would be a less salient reminder of the precarious conditions under which American workers have always labored. But professional sports remain the most public performance of organized labor in American popular culture, an enduring simulacrum of the occupational hazards, bad managerial behavior, and dicey pay scales endured by the working class on the obstacle course that has become day-to-day survival in the 21st-century United States. For American workers, capitalism is both shark and water, biting individual workers with low pay and stressful work environments, while drowning out the country’s collective ability to imagine something better. 

Seattle in the 1980s was a corporate paradise in the making, with Microsoft’s Bill Gates being named as “one of the 25 most intriguing people” in the country in People Magazine in 1983, and the Nordstrom family, who owned the Seahawks, raking in huge profits at its area department stores. After acquiring Starbucks when it had fewer than two dozen stores in 1987, Seattle businessman Howard Schultz dramatically expanded the corporation while viciously fighting trade unions formed by struggling baristas. Within a decade, Starbucks operated 2,500 stores worldwide, on the way to becoming the premiere global coffee behemoth. 

Seattle today is a gleaming metropolis where the white-collar managerial class has come to expect reliable service work from laborers risking health and safety during a pandemic. Starbucks baristas are the face of American labor unrest and ask for the same support — to strike funds and direct actions — that the Seahawks received in 1987. But declining worker protections mar laborers in all fields: New Age coffee companies that resist unions, but also exploitative newsrooms, nonprofits that pay paltry wages, and progressive-seeming politicians who become suddenly conservative when their staffs unionize. 

As economists describe a “great resignation” among fed-up workers fatigued by decades of flatlining wages, football is a source of brainless entertainment. But for a few short weeks in the fall of 1987, the grizzly gridiron game was something else: an exercise in solidarity.


Sources

1. (1987, October 3). “Replacement Seahawks will put out the effort, but what about ability.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2.

2a. (1987, September 27). “1,000 fans rally to bring back striking Seahawks.” The Seattle Times, 1.

2b. (1987, October/November). “Distortions in Claims of NFL Owners.” The Scanner/King County Labor News.


The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.


Shaun Scott is a Seattle-based writer and organizer. A member of the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America and an executive councilmember for the union Campaign Workers Guild, he is a former field organizer for Pramila Jayapal’s 2018 re-election campaign. He was the Washington State field director for Bernie Sanders 2020. Shaun is the author of the book “Millennials and the Moments That Made Us” (Zero Books 2018).

📸 Featured Image: Photo by Brocreative/Shutterstock.com

Before you move on to the next story …
Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!