Sweetie has had a lot of time on his hands the past couple of months thanks to an accident in mid-July. He was looking forward to the start of hockey season but alas, it appears he may have a long wait. As both a labour negotiator and sports fan, here are his thoughts on the labour negotiations.
There is a theory in physics known as the “observer effect” – sometimes mistakenly referred to as the Heisenberg effect. The theory suggests the presence of observers to a situation can change the outcome. I’ve come to the conclusion that when it comes to the dispute between the NHL and NHLPA, the theory has been proven. The problem here, however, isn’t simply mere observation but rather who is doing watching.
Here’s a question for you. Is this a labour/management dispute or is it a sports story? I suggest it is a labour/management story concerning the economies, working conditions, power and other elements of a particular industry. So why is this dispute being covered almost exclusively by sports journalists? In similar stories we hear from people with business backgrounds, financial expertise and other business specialties. Heck, even the weather gets special attention. We have meteorologists to tell us whether we need sun screen or an umbrella tomorrow.
The NHL is reported to be a $3.3 billion business. That doesn’t count the many other enterprises that benefit either directly or indirectly from professional hockey. Some estimates put those financial aspects at three or four times as much again. The reporting on the performance of the stock market, bank mergers, and communication company takeovers etc. is for the most part done by people with some business knowledge or expertise. In most cases businesses work to ensure any deal meets the objectives of both parties. Having winners and losers isn’t necessarily seen as good business. We frequently see the CEOs of major companies talking about why their merger or partnership is good for everybody – a win-win if you will.
Most news outlets no longer have labour specialists and therefore have little knowledge of that world. But sports journalists are probably the least qualified to deal with a labour dispute. It’s simply not their area of expertise or interest. When it comes to covering sports we fans aren’t much interested in win-win. A tie? That’s like kissing your sister. Nope, we fans want winners and therefore need losers. It’s nice to talk about respecting your opponent, about the grit shown by the defeated, etc. But let’s face it, when we flip open the sports pages or tune into our favourite sportscast we want to know if our team won and by how much. There’s nothing wrong with this when it comes to sports coverage. In fact we demand it, but it is fatal when it comes to getting negotiated agreements.
So here we are with yet another NHL lockout. How is it going to end, when is it going to end and most important, who’s going to win? The NHL has demanded another 25% cut in players’ salaries. The players say no way, not again. On the surface this is all about money. But is it really? Do the owners actually really “need” more money? Can the players actually live well with less? Money has now been mistaken for principle.
Each percentage point represents something more in ego, power, face-saving, winning or losing. True to their natural tendencies the NHL and the NHLPA are treating this negotiation like a game, offence and defence struggling to dominate.
And that brings me back to the observer effect. The parties are encouraged in this game by a cast of sports experts, most of whom have never been near a bargaining table, actually understand the business world and do not understand unions at all. But why should they? They cover winning and losing. Sadly, because it’s what they know, the NHL and the NHLPA are only too happy to play to this audience. The observers are indeed affecting the outcome.
So how and when will it end? The when is hard to predict but will happen at the time when the parties recognize they are hurting themselves, probably not for months. The how is easier to answer because it’s the truth about how most deals get done. Any real progress will happen with virtually no outside observers, behind closed doors. Both sides will then be able to make the compromises it’ll take to bridge the gap. In that process both sides will be able to focus on what they really need rather than what they want. That’s when the deal gets done.
Sure this will ultimately play out in the public arena with journalists and former players telling us who they think won and who lost. But don’t for a minute think that’s where and when the real negotiating took place.
Dan Oldfield – hockey fan, union side negotiator and former journalist.
- NHL lockout all but set with no talks planned (cbc.ca)
- Wharnsby: NHL, players could face another lengthy battle (cbc.ca)
- The NHL lockout has arrived (sports.nationalpost.com)
- NHL, NHLPA relationship 50 Shades of Nasty: Cox (thestar.com)
- Unable to Reach Deal, NHL Officially Begins Lockout (forbes.com)