Representing the Establishment: Donald Fehr as Fringe Labor Leader

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In Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball, sports journalist Howard Bryant notes that when Marvin Miller headed the baseball players union, the public was often sympathetic to his side. In taking on the owners, the former chief economist of the Steelworkers Union was “dismantling a historically unfair system.” But by the strike of 1994, with Donald Fehr at the helm and with players’ average salaries in seven figures, writes Bryant, “Both sides represented the establishment.”

This perception still follows Don around. There’s little doubt he’s a powerful sports labor leader but his name won’t be mentioned alongside, say, Lech Walesa. In ten years we won’t be seeing the movie version of Lockout 2012 with the hero Fehr drawn like a modern-day Norma Rae.

Should Fehr some day decide his talents might better serve the hourlies at Wal-Mart, then that perception might change. But so long as he reps a membership that makes what hockey players make, that lives and travels the way hockey players do, Fehr will forever remain that rare figure: an elitist union leader, lacking blue collar credibility and ultimately relegated to labor’s outer fringe.

CAW COUNCIL INVITATION

With this in mind, I was especially intrigued to watch Fehr’s 8 December 2012 speech to the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Council at the downtown Sheraton hotel in Toronto. Previously I tried to get other labor leaders to comment on the NHLPA’s situation without success, giving me the impression that while the National Labor Relations Board might see the NHLPA as no different than any other union, other unions didn’t necessarily agree.

Prior to watching the speech, I had never seen Fehr at one podium for more than a few minutes. I’d never seen him not giving a press conference. I had high expectations for this address. The NHLPA headlined their presser on the remarks, “Don Fehr Sheds Light on Lockout at CAW.”

I’ve watched it several times now. The presser’s headline is neither accurate nor appropriate. A better one would be “CAW Speech Sheds Light on Fehr.”

For starters, it’s clear that Fehr had little time to put this together; his main points are rough and unedited, he abuses subordinate clauses as though they were improvised afterthoughts, has no economy of words, and he is inattentive to narrative flow.

But those are rhetorical critiques. So he’s not the most gripping public speaker–that’s not his job. His job is to represent the players and normally he is very good at it.

He isn’t very good at it in this speech–which might explain why this speech received so little media coverage–but given the circumstances I’m not sure he could have done any better.

NOT THE SMARTEST GUY IN THE ROOM 

Marvin Miller’s influence on Fehr has been extraordinary. Miller’s greatest gift was his ability to communicate with a group of naive baseball players in a basic, stripped down language that didn’t condescend or insult the intelligence. Fehr does this too. He speaks slowly; he eschews crescendo; he puts silent pauses to work for him; he exudes confidence and trustworthiness. Perhaps most intriguing, he never appears to think he’s the smartest person in the room. Instead his every mannerism supports the idea that you, the listener, are the smartest person in the room. Or at least that you have the potential to be.

Early reports about Fehr’s initial talks to the NHLPA were that they were in direct contrast to the days of Bob Goodenow. Under Bob, background chatter was common. When Fehr spoke, you could hear a pin drop. Even though he is not a compelling or entertaining public speaker, there is something commanding in his presence.

A POORLY SUPPORTED ARGUMENT

Specific to a fault and known for having a sharp argumentative mind, Fehr flunks in that capacity here as he makes his case for the commonalities between the NHLPA and other unions:

“When somebody says to me ‘What do hockey players have in common with other people that are in unions, other people that are attempting to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, other people that are attempting to improve or maintain the terms and conditions of employment that so many people over so many generations have struggled for?’, it is that it is basically the same situation. The industry is different. Nobody is going to pretend that the amount of dollars that flow through it are the same for employees as in others, but the struggle is more or less the same.”

His conclusion, that they ‘more or less’ share the same struggle, is supported by the following premises:

  • They are all in labor unions.
  • They all have to negotiate a CBA.
  • They all attempt to “improve or maintain the terms and conditions of employment …”

This colossally poor reasoning reads little better than asserting that hockey players and factory workers are no different because both wear pants and both put those pants on one leg at a time. Fehr is all too aware of this–otherwise he would not have posed these premises as being factual clauses. It’s a clever device but faced with the near impossible hurdle of finding common ground here, it’s no wonder he resorts to sneakiness.

DENOUEMENT

The awkward collision between Fehr’s labor world and the real labor world continues through to the denouement. At that point, Fehr returns to his defense of the players, but this time he abandons any attempt to find common ground. Instead he tries to re-instate the players in the public eye:

“That summer (1981) I … learned what the potential effect is that professional athletes can have on other people in other unions trying to struggle their way through their own problems.

And that was because while we [the MLBPA] were on strike, the air traffic controllers strike broke out in the States. And as most of you know that strike was broken by action of the President.

What I learned out of that—and what I learned in 1994 which was the second major strike the baseball players were involved in, which only ended when the federal courts ruled that the owners had bargained in bad faith—and what I am witnessing again this time around, is that whatever else the professional athletes do, they can be—and I think are—a reminder to everybody else of what it takes in a difficult struggle.

And if indeed the 750 or so players that I have the privilege to represent can help remind everybody of that, then that will be an important side benefit to what is otherwise a very difficult and unpleasant period.”

In other words, hockey players normally inspire others by their world-class athleticism. They are not doing that now, and that may be upsetting to many people. However, those people should realize that the players are still those same inspirational figures, except now they’re doing it by fighting the good fight–taking on ownership with the same work ethic they bring to the ice every night.

Absurd on its face, this line of reasoning is also very telling. Recall, his audience is made up of Canadians. They know their hockey. That the Executive Director of the NHL Players Association is working so hard to sell the cause of his membership to this audience means he likely knows they’re already lost.

THE TOXIC TWINS

Many in hockey are quick to point out that there have been four work stoppages in the Gary Bettman era. During his entire time with the MLBPA, either working under Miller or as Executive Director, Donald Fehr saw five: four strikes and one lockout.

Combined, Fehr and Bettman have overseen the cancellation of several thousands of professional sports games. They both represent the establishment. Bettman doesn’t bother to apologize for that; Fehr doesn’t think he needs to. The result is the darkest and most toxic era in the history of the NHL.

Back to Bryant:

“1994 more than any other labor year was about power and establishing just who possessed it. The issues themselves seemed murky and the vitriol between the two sides seemed strong enough to sustain a permanent discord.”

Sound familiar?

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