By all accounts, Barstool Sports head Dave Portnoy desperately wants to be the swaggering bad guy who crushes unions with a Cheshire-cat grin. In pursuing this new identity, he’s pulled from every page of the union-busting playbook when it comes to rhetoric.
It’s not surprising that his big talk exists in the form of challenging his critics’ toughness, work ethic and loyalty. There’s a long legacy of union-busters belittling the people who want to organize, after all — and there’s a reason why the language overflows with dog-whistle insults to a person’s masculinity. Case in point: “pussy.”
The legend of Barstool is well-known by now: Portnoy turned a newsletter (which he literally had to scream about for people to read) into a media network valued at $100 million, owned by big-time investor Peter Chernin. So when Portnoy rambles about his achievements and then points a finger at “snowflakes,” the implication is clear: I made this. You didn’t. I’m strong. You, a union-loving nobody who can’t hustle as hard, are weak.
Men have long been the dominant demographic in American unions, and the battle around unionizing has always been cloaked in arguments over masculinity. One of the main triggers for a “masculinity crisis” was the Industrial Revolution, as it shifted a culture of land-owning men and self-employed craftsmen toward a structure of employers and workers, as researcher Ava Baron argues in her paper “Masculinity, the Embodied Male Worker and the Historian’s Gaze.” The loss of power and agency in new workplaces, which were dominated by brutal practices and rampant spying on the productivity of employees, forced men to reconsider their role and character, Baron writes.
“In differing yet equally important ways, middle- and working-class men sought to secure their manhood by emphasizing its embodiment,” she explains. “A hegemonic masculinity emerged that emphasized toughness, physical strength, aggressiveness and risk taking.”
By the 1920s, burgeoning union movements were leveraging this internal crisis in the hope that men would feel motivated to organize and fight back against their bosses. But the fault lines in class and race made the union pitch more challenging. Groups like the communist-led Auto Workers Union spoke directly to changing masculinity in the 20th century, emphasizing militant class struggle and a man securing the role of family breadwinner, according to researcher Gregory Wood. But in his paper, “The Paralysis of the Labor Movement,” Wood observes that many workers in Detroit preferred to dispute wages with their employer alone and weren’t attracted to notions of collectivist activism. “Workingmen and union organizes failed to coalesce because they thought about the identity of a working-class man in substantially different ways,” he writes.
Employers fed off this identity crisis, too. Anti-union messages often highlighted toughness and self-reliance, portraying collective action as a cowardly way to confront problems. Strikebreakers, hired by employers to replace and harass striking workers, often consisted of burly men and college athletes. Historian and professor Stephen Norwood claims that this style of strikebreaking hinged on young men who bought into “a test of masculinity” and who could “give as good as they got.”
Later, in the middle of the 20th century, physical violence between pro-union figures and their opponents flared. As unions matured, they honed strategies for how to intimidate and suffocate those who stood in the way of wages, rights and political power. Union leadership became, in a sense, a mirror image of the tough-guy employers and politicians of the time — it meant you were loud and never shy about confrontation.
All that said, you don’t have to turn to historical examples to understand the complicated relationship between unionizing and masculinity. In his 1993 book, Confessions of a Union Buster, author Martin J. Levitt revealed a clever tactic: He’d ask a married worker if they enjoyed sleeping with their wife, and then followed up by asking, “How would you like it if your mother-in-law slept between you and your wife every night?”
The implication: A union is basically like a cock-block.
And workers at a Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee alleged in 2014 that a culture of “machismo and bullying” dominated the workplace, with supervisors pushing workers to fight through injury and be a “team player.” Ed Hunter, then 43, recalled to In These Times how he ruptured several disks in his back and requested a shorter shift. The response he got was a favorite of Portnoy’s: “pussy.”
“There is a kind of machismo to the ‘I don’t need no union to speak for me’ attitude,” Lauren Feinauer, one of a handful of women at the VW plant, told In These Times.
Perhaps differences in background can help explain why so many men subscribe to this view even when unionization could tangibly help them. Kate Brofenbrenner, a professor at the Cornell School of Industry and Labor Relations, notes that unlike many white men, women and people of color understood the importance of unions because they didn’t trust or relate to the white-male employers responsible for abuses. “There are lots of white men who started out poor just like them, who made it all on their own to the very top, and surely they stayed as far away from unions as they could to get there,” Bronfenbrenner says in the article.
So no wonder Portnoy puffs up whenever he thinks of unions — he never needed one to build Barstool, and if he’s incapable of seeing himself as the bad guy, then any act of organizing can feel like a slap in the face. It’s the same entitlement that leads him to brush off calling a female reporter a “fucking slut” while demanding she dress “sluttier,” and the symbiosis of defensive selfishness that empowers him to steal content, only to accuse “morons” and “haters” of wanting attention over it.
Clearly, this rhetoric still works — I mean, you can sense Portnoy’s glee in his interactions with a Twitter user who alleges to be a union member yet still supports Portnoy as an example of the “American Dream.” This is the kind of cognitive dissonance that happens when masculine voices scream that unions are about “handouts” rather than crucial things like living wages or, I dunno, weekend time off.
A few Barstool employees, meanwhile, showed up on Twitter to support Portnoy by pointing out he’s a good boss, as if the point of a union is merely to get a boss that makes jokes you enjoy and doesn’t actively fuck anyone over. Observers astutely noted that Barstool’s ownership, the Chernin Group, could wreck shit at the company no matter how affable Portnoy seems on a given day. But no matter: Time for a mocking skit!
This is, unfortunately, exactly in line with the Barstool brand and fandom, which thrives on the notion that being entitled and sophomoric is the equivalent of living one’s best life, with little respect to the real harms and nuance that exist outside this deeply basic thought bubble. Portnoy will likely remain the guy who rallies the troops to harass and cyberbully anyone he perceives to be an enemy of his winkingly totalitarian kingdom.
But while trying to throw Portnoy under the bus for breaking labor laws might be fun, the whole ordeal is mostly illustrative as another chapter in how labor fights stoke our deepest notions of masculinity and strength.