Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris during an NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Carolina Panthers. (John Byrum via Getty Images)

Are NFL Running Backs the New Face of America’s Labor Movement?

Unionization is sweeping the nation, with some unlikely forces leading the charge—from Hollywood actors to superstar athletes.

In 2021, running back Najee Harris, a University of Alabama senior and first-round National Football League draft pick, signed a four-year, $13 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In both seasons with the Steelers, Harris, now 25, scored ten touchdowns.

He leads the NFL with 694 “touches”—the number of times he’s actually laid hands on a football during a game.

And he has the most rushing yards—2,234—in a player’s first two seasons in Steelers history.

But when his contract is up in 2025, Harris is unlikely to secure another long-term deal in the NFL, which kicked off its 104th season on Thursday.

That’s because running backs—whose job includes receiving handoffs from the quarterback, catching passes, and blocking—are getting pummeled like never before by bigger, stronger, faster NFL players. Which means that when their contracts are up, running backs are more damaged than they used to be.

What’s more, the drama has shifted: running backs used to score a lot, but now the action revolves around quarterbacks and wide receivers. 

That explains why team owners are increasingly hiring rookies to be their running backs and, instead of investing in them long-term, replacing those rookies with other rookies at the end of their first contract.

So, running backs—having suffered tons of concussions, ankle sprains, and other injuries—never see the big, second-contract payday other NFL players land. Like the Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ $450 million contract or the $120 million deal wide receiver Tyreek Hill signed with the Miami Dolphins. 

All of which explains how Harris has become a leading advocate for a running-backs-only union—and the unlikely face of the new American labor movement.

“I agree with my running back brothers around the NFL—history will show that you need running backs to win—we set the tone every game and run through walls for our team,” Harris tweeted in July, after three of his fellow running backs failed to secure long-term deals with their teams.

The new union, which would be separate from the NFL Players Association, was first proposed in 2019, when the International Brotherhood of Professional Running Backs filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board.

When Harris was asked in June what he thought of the idea, he said: “I’m open to it.”

He is joined by Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry, 29. Known as King Henry, he tweeted in July: “At this point, just take the RB position out the game then. The ones that want to be great & work as hard as they can to give their all to an organization, just seems like it don’t even matter. I’m with every RB that’s fighting to get what they deserve.” 

Granted, professional running backs, with an average salary of $1.8 million, make a lot more than nurses, pilots, public school teachers, and everyone else in a union, but the money is declining, and they increasingly feel as though they’re being exploited by management at the same time the NFL is seeing record success. In 2023, the NFL secured $130 billion in new media deals. Of the top 100 network television broadcasts in the country last year, the league accounted for 82, and that figure is going up. On top of all that, game attendance is nearing an all-time high

Mounting anger among running backs comes at the same time that workers across the country are organizing and pushing back against their corporate overlords in greater numbers than at any point in the past half-century.

Carlos, a UPS worker in Manhattan, delivers packages on his daily rounds on July 24, 2023. (Spencer Platt via Getty Images)

In July, the 340,000 UPS workers represented by the Teamsters secured wage increases, with the average driver slated to earn $170,000 in salary and benefits. The Hollywood writers’ strike, which started in early May, shows no sign of ebbing. In July, actors joined the writers in solidarity.

“We are being victimized by a very greedy entity,” Fran Drescher, the actor and president of SAG-AFTRA, recently said, adding that streaming and AI had “disemboweled the industry that we once knew.” (Lest anyone smirk at the thought of all those Hollywood A-listers picketing alongside their UPS brothers and sisters, it’s worth noting that the average actor in La La Land makes just shy of $69,000.)

In 2022, union activists successfully organized an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, and two Starbucks locations in Buffalo, New York. Today, 355 Starbucks locations with nearly 9,000 employees, from Oregon to Utah to Texas to Florida, are organized.

Also in 2022, about 20 quality assurance testers at Activision Blizzard’s Albany location unionized, meaning Microsoft, in the midst of acquiring the company, will soon be a union employer.

Meanwhile, unionization efforts are afoot at Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, Apple Stores, and Grindr.

The dynamic at all these places appears to be the same, more or less: as company profits have skyrocketed, worker pay has stalled or declined. 

Jefferson White joins SAG-AFTRA members on the picket line outside of Netflix and Warner Bros on July 20, 2023, in New York City. (John Nacion via Getty Images)

This sense of unfairness seems to be pushing workers—and, in fact, all Americans—to reassess their attitudes toward unionization: From 2019 to 2022, there was a 41 percent jump in the number of hourly workers open to unions. In 2022, there was a 52 percent increase in the number of strikes. And 67 percent of Americans now support unions. That’s slightly lower than the year before, but it marks the fifth year in a row in which union support has surpassed its long-term average of 62 percent.

What’s more, most Americans increasingly back labor over management when it comes to disputes about salary and benefits. That’s not only true of the United Auto Workers, who enjoy the support of 75 percent of Americans, but the Hollywood writers, with 72 percent of those polled in the writers’ corner versus 19 percent backing the studios.

All of these recent developments—which, taken together, mark a sea change that will be felt across the economy, in our politics, culture, and the way we live—are not just about money. In fact, that’s the least of it.

Today’s working stiff bears only a faint resemblance to the coal miners, machinists, and steelworkers of times past. He’s not necessarily blue-collar, and he’s just as often a she (“The new unions will have more women bringing home the bacon,” Michelle Valentin Nieves, Amazon Labor Union’s vice president, told me), and they come from all racial and ethnic backgrounds and from across the country—our biggest cities, our suburbs and exurbs and all the places in between. They are often college graduates (in no small part because today’s American workforce is over-credentialed), and many come from the upper middle class. They are not convinced, as Boomers once were, that their upward mobility is inevitable.

But the question that most interests me, as an American historian who has spent years studying the labor movement, is why now. Why, in the second decade of the twenty-first century—after a half-century of declining wages and eroding political power in the face of the globalization juggernaut—is the American labor movement having a moment? And is this just a moment, or is that moment going to become something bigger?

Marx would have us believe that growing proletarian misery is the seedbed of revolution, that the rebirth of American working-class consciousness is the scientifically determined outcome of centuries of oppression. What else, he would say, would you expect of the masses (blue-collar or other) after years of economic subjugation capped by a pandemic that left millions unemployed, atomized, furious with the powers that be? 

I humbly suggest that Marx is dead wrong. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

What’s happening now is the result of rising expectations. The people leading the unionization charge have not been beaten down by decades of closing factories. They’re mostly in their twenties and thirties, and they have grown up in an era of remarkable liberalization and technological progress: the election of the nation’s first black president, the arrival of gay marriage, the explosive connectivity of the internet. They expect more, because they were born into a world in which more was possible.

Chris Smalls, the founder of the Amazon Labor Union, is 35. Starbucks union leader Laura Garza is 23. All of the running backs agitating for better pay are in their twenties. And then there are the Silicon Valley developers pushing for change—all of whom only recently entered the workforce. (It’s true that Fran Drescher is 65, but she runs a guild that’s been around for ages. The current labor movement is mostly being forged by people creating something new.)

Starbucks workers including barista Kat Ramos stand in solidarity with striking members of SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama via Getty Images)

Young Americans today expect a world that conforms to the one they were promised. The olds—myself included—may question their politics, their pronouns, their self-righteousness. But they are, in fact, doing little more than giving voice to the aspirations of America—making the modern workplace less hospitable to sexual harassment, more meritocratic, more respectful of our differences. They are doing what Americans are supposed to do. And all of us, especially those who have yet to be born into this glorious, heartbreaking country, will have them to thank for it.

That includes professional football players. 

“Any and all activism helps,” Valentin Nieves told me. She added that she recently met a man organizing minor league baseball players. “I definitely feel solidarity with NFL running backs and all athletes.”

Ultimately, this new labor movement “will redefine what work and community will look like,” said Maria Noel Fernandez, the executive director of Working Partnerships USA, which helps organize workers in Silicon Valley. 

She continued: “A fast-food worker gets up in the morning. If they have a union, they have one dignified job—not three. They can go to their kid’s soccer practice. They can be engaged as citizens and address what their parks, schools, and communities look like. They can be who they want to be and what they want to be for their families and communities.”

Jeffrey Bloodworth is the author of Losing the Center: A History of American Liberalism, 1968–1992. Read his last Free Press piece, What Two Iraqi Teenagers Taught Me About America, and follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @jhueybloodworth

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