Cheerleader union seeks respect, better pay Jill's Won't Be Buffaloes

March 04, 1995|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer

The Buffalo Jills are wearing the union label now. And not in their uniforms.

Among professional football cheerleaders, the Jills have scored a first. Last week, the 36-member squad voted overwhelmingly to have a union represent them on and off the field -- a decision fueled by poor pay and a desire to improve their image.

"We put a lot of time and effort into this," says Erin McCormack, a Jill who works as a legal assistant. "What we're trying to do is gain respect as a squad and to cheerleading as a whole."

Whether a union card will bring the Jills the respect and professional stature they seek is an open question.

In the world of professional football, the cheerleaders are a high-stepping diversion to the main event -- the game. They are the pinups of the National Football League, the halftime showgirls in short skirts (weather permitting). Off the field, these women may be accountants, teachers or nurses. But in NFL parlance, they are "the girls."

"They don't wear helmets. They don't play the games, and they don't make any difference," says Chuck "The Coach" Dickerson, a Buffalo radio sportscaster and one-time Bills defensive line coach. "Cheerleaders in professional sports are nothing more than showpieces for someone to look at who get a twitch from a girlie magazine."

Of the 28 NFL teams, 21 have cheerleading squads. Many squads are owned by their teams. They are part of the organization and the promotional package. The Jills are an exception. A private firm, the Buffalo Jills Cheerleaders Inc., owns the squad and contracts its services to the Buffalo Bills.

The Jills' decision to unionize had to do with everything from the quality of their public appearances to the location of their practice space. The Jills want more say on their uniforms, routines and dance music without the fear of being "benched."

They also want to be fairly compensated. They pay for shoes and boots, the earrings they wear, their airfare to the Super Bowl. If they don't sell their quota of posters, they eat the cost themselves.

"We hope here to upgrade the quality of appearances that we do. We are a group of very talented professionals, athletic women, and we want to be marketed that way," says Nancy Bates, a television broadcaster and seven-year member of the Jills.

"This is a business, and everybody's profiting on it except the cheerleaders," she says.

Getting organized

The Jills, through the newly formed National Football League Cheerleaders Association, are anxious to sit down with management and negotiate. They want to improve their working conditions in Buffalo before contacting other cheerleading squads about organizing.

Jills' owner Andy Gerovac says he feels betrayed by the union vote. He never thought of the cheerleaders as his "employees," he says. If anything, they were more like "co-workers."

Plus, he says, the cheerleaders performed at an average of only eight home games a year.

"That's a tough work schedule?" Mr. Gerovac asks.

"A union, that says you're being mistreated by management," adds Mr. Gerovac, the co-owner of the Jills' sponsor, a chain of taco restaurants. "I've been in the unions. There's definitely a place for them, for hard workers who are looking to take care of their families for the future. To me, jumping around on the sidelines isn't really work. It isn't labor at all."

"Ego and greed" drove this union election, says Mr. Gerovac, 44. "People are trying to squeeze a gallon of milk out of a quart. I thought we were a very close family. I was volunteering my time. They were volunteering their time. I basically got stabbed in the back."

But the Jills, who practice twice a week for several hours, argue that the public doesn't really know the personal time and expense involved in being a professional cheerleader.

They may be right.

"They flew themselves to the Super Bowl?" asks Stephanie French, of the International Cheerleading Federation. "I bet the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders get a lot more money."

The big leagues

The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, America's premier cheerleading squad, definitely have a sweeter deal. Their uniforms, Super Bowl travel and other expenses are paid for. They get footwear for free. They do buy their own pantyhose -- and at two pairs a game (to hide the runs) it can be costly. Each cheerleader receives $15 per home game.

The real money, however, comes from the autograph signings at conventions, trade shows, ribbon cuttings and grand openings. The Dallas Cowboys organization, which arranges and coordinates the public appearances, dispatches the cheerleaders in pairs. The appearances range from 30 minutes to three hours. The women earn an average of $500 an appearance, says Pamela Jenkins, of the cheerleaders organization.

But the women don't make anything from the posters and swimsuit calendars sold by the team. Nor do they get reimbursed for the sale of videos (there are three of them) or their appearances in the calendar swimsuit show that has aired on ESPN, says Ms. Jenkins.

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