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.
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.
"It's exciting for them to be on TV, to be in the calendar. . . . That's one of the fringe benefits they get being a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader," says Ms. Jenkins.
Like most of the other 21 cheerleading squads, the Dallas organization has a strict set of rules for the cheerleaders. Attendance at practice. Weight restrictions. Attitude and conduct. They compete for a spot on the team -- and thousands try out.
"These girls are professional and educated young women. They are not just out there shaking their pompons . . .," says Ms. Jenkins.
In Baltimore, the CFL Colts have a dance squad that performs at their home games. Known as the Baltimore CFL Dance Squad, the 12-member group is managed by Fusion Productions Ltd. The club provides the uniforms and flew the group to the CFL's championship game in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Leanne Order, Fusion's president and one of the dancers, says the dancers receive a minimum of $30 for a public appearance and pick those they wish to attend. "We make sure the girls are compensated if someone is benefitting in a commercial way," she says.
In Buffalo, the Jills don't receive a per-game stipend. They get a parking pass, a field pass and a ticket for their boyfriend or husband.
They receive $25 an hour for a public appearance, although they appear at plenty of charitable events for free. (Businesses pay $250 for two Jills for two hours, and the Jills' owners take $150 of it, according to the squad's lawyer, W. James Schwan.)
The money the Jills earn in appearance fees usually doesn't cover their season expenses, several cheerleaders say.
When the Jills sought an increase in their public appearance fee, cheerleader Erin McCormack says, they were turned down. The reason? Competition -- waitresses from the Hooters restaurant chain were charging less for appearances.
Someone to look up to
The comparison just underscored her desire to upgrade the image of a sport in which the participants must try out yearly to qualify for a spot on an NFL squad.
"I don't want to be compared to a Hootergirl, a waitress [who] wears a skimpy little outfit all day," says Ms. McCormack, a 25-year-old with a graduate degree.
Adds Jills cheerleader Nancy Bates: "We want young cheerleaders to be able to look up to us and feel very proud."
The Jills may be the first group of cheerleaders to organize a union. But they are not the first to complain about their working conditions. Several years ago, members of the Redskinettes complained about nepotism and favoritism in the management of the Washington Redskins' squad. Their complaints -- including whether they could wear underwear under their uniforms -- were detailed in a Washington Post story, "The Revolt of the Redskinettes."
Kathy Craft, a former Redskinette who works for the American Postal Union, has a newspaper clipping about the Buffalo Jills' union vote tacked to her office bulletin board. For too long, she says, the attitude of cheerleading management has been: If you don't like it, quit.
"That's why there needs to be some sort of representation," says Ms. Craft, a special assistant to the president of the postal workers union.
"I'm ecstatic that these women had the courage to stand up and do something about it."