Laboring Points: Between Prophets and Non-Prophets

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A HOCKEY PROPHET

In 1965– before league expansion and before the WHA, at a time when Clarence Campbell was still scoffing at the prospect of a league pool greater than six– Montreal Canadiens President J. David Molson got eerily prophetic for Sports Illustrated:

Twenty or so years from now I can see two six-team leagues in the National Hockey League; an expanded American Hockey League with more than the nine teams it now has; foreign leagues with Russian and Czech and Swedish teams; and a world playoff for the Stanley Cup, with worldwide television …

… If we keep [the NHL at six teams], a new league could start on its own, and we’d have a lot of headaches. You just can’t tell people that they’re gonna be minor league and there’s nothing they can do about it, because there is something they can do about it. They can say, ‘Well, why shouldn’t we class ourselves as major league hockey? We’ll just start our own league. We’ll raid the NHL, we’ll sign their players, we’ll offer these guys X hundred thousand.’ There’s nothing to stop them.

You might say the WHA stole Molson’s idea except not even Molson would have likely claimed at least the second part to be a wholly original thought. Rather he’s hinting at what Judge Leon Higginbotham would rule in Federal Court seven years later: that the NHL is a monopoly, and could get knocked on its heels by even the slightest bit of competition. And that’s what happened when the WHA was formed.

The World Hockey Association did more for the average NHL player than any effort by any person or association before or since. It fought over a dozen legal injunctions filed by the NHL in their first year and won all but two of them.*

It succeeded it eliminating the NHL’s infamous reserve clause, which kept players chained to the same team every year whether it was what they wanted or not.*

Following the WHA’s first season, the average NHL salary had jumped from $28,000 to $44,000. Five years later, the average NHL salary was pushing $100,000.*

[* Willes, Ed. The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association. McClelland & Stewart (2004).]

OPTIONS

Labor gets its negotiating muscle from having options. Options are products of a competitive market. Lacking options, a private sector union is virtually powerless.

For skilled hockey players, the semi-reality is that they have many options—the AHL, the ECHL, the KHL, the Czech Extraliga, the Elitserien.

But are these really options? None of them can match the compete level of the NHL, none can match the lifestyle afforded them by the NHL, none can match the prestige, or the pay. The world follows the NHL. NHL stardom is world stardom. Unlike in the other major sports, NHL champions truly are World Champions.

The NHL flaunts this status. It holds North American minor pro leagues in check by creating trickle-down affiliations with them. It never entertains the idea that any contract with any player from any other league could possibly be as authoritative as its own.

Such as it is, the NHL remains an unafraid monopoly provider of the world’s best hockey.

If the players really wanted to put the screws to the NHL, they would depart in droves. Not just the minor stars but Crosby, Ovechkin, Giroux. Commit to raise the level of play in other leagues so that the NHL loses its arrogance. Fulfill Molson’s idea of a global competition for the Stanley Cup.

Negotiations with a monopoly provider of goods or services will never end well for private sector labor unions. They can only negotiate with things they’ve previously won.

REMEMBER WISCONSIN!

Remember the Wisconsin protests of 2011? Unions and their members came from all over the country to join the protests. Messages of support came in from around the world (including Poland’s famed Solidarity Union, pictured in 1984 at the top of this article).

The National Labor Relations Board considers the NHLPA to be a Section 2(5) labor organization, a fact the NHLPA does not dispute. This merely means the Player’s Association is legally regarded in the US as having the same rights as the Teamsters, auto workers, teachers, and virtually every other labor collective in the public and private sector.

I therefore sent media requests to some of the biggest labor unions in the United States, including the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the United Steel Workers, the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO, asking for an official statement on hockey’s labor dispute.

Number of replies? Zero.

MORE LOSERS

Add this group to the set of real-life losers in the event of a lockout: Those players for whom this season will either be their first taste of the NHL or their first full season on one-way contracts. Worked for it most of their lives. Finally achieved. And now it may be lost.

It’s not as though earning another such contract is a done deal. Things change. There’s more than a few of these guys in the PA. Like good hockey players they won’t break rank, but c’mon, you know that privately—they’re in disbelief.

SIDE (LETTER) DRAMA

Back in 2005, when Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow finally agreed on a new CBA, the document contained a total of 30 so-called side letters. Side letters are common if dubious aspects of negotiations and contracts; they’re not published with the contract and their contents are generally held as being confidential. Typically they contain sensitive information—information that might compromise one side’s proprietary technology, for instance.

When the players voted on the CBA, they knew nothing of the side letters, and they had to fight with their own union to see what information these side letters contained. Today you can download the CBA and find about 20 of these letters. Some of the others were available only on the players’ password-protected site maintained by the PA. A few of them, however, remain unseen by all but a handful of players.

The players eventually filed grievances with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the union of “violating its duty of fair representation.”

The two Advice Memoranda can be accessed via NLRB.gov.  If occasionally repetitive, they still make for a fun pair of reads.

A HOCKEY NON-PROPHET

Finally, in 2005 Gary Bettman was less-than-prophetic with this line, found at the CBC’s “Faceoff: 2004-05″:

It’s over. Let’s drop the puck on a fresh start and a wonderful future for the National Hockey League.

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