One of the things that hasn’t been really been picked over in any detail from the CBA negotiations is the length of the CBA that the owners are asking for. The fans and media that I’ve seen are virtually unanimously in favour of a lengthy one. Don Fehr was asked about it on Thursday and gave what I thought was a pretty compelling defence of the idea that the CBA should be shorter instead of longer.
One (my concerns) is an ethical or a philosophical one, which is to say that by the time you get to year five or year six, the majority of the players playing will never have voted on an agreement, will never have participated in the process, they will never have had the rights that union representation is supposed to give them, to have a say in their terms and conditions of employment. By the time you get to two (sic) years, you have two or more generations of players…
Fehr’s response was to a question about a deal lasting for ten years; I assume that his reference to two years was meant to be ten years. It’s pretty difficult to argue with the moral view of the world contained within that statement. Fehr has other objections to a long agreement that strike me as equally reasonable, relating to the ability of each side to project the economics of hockey that far forward but the basic statement of principle that I’ve quoted there strikes me as even more powerful than that.
The NHL’s latest offer involved a ten year term, with a mutual opt-out after eight years. If you go back and look at how many players were active in the 2003-04 season and the 2011-12 season, it’s awfully small – we’re talking about a group of 264 players, out of more than 900 who will play in the NHL in a given season. How can that group of players have any legitimacy in terms of making decisions for the 700 or so players who aren’t yet in the league? There’s always going to be a bit of a tradeoff in any union, some degree of the union making deals that will affect the rights of future workers without those workers having a say.
This is exacerbated in professional sport, where the turnover is a lot higher than it is at somewhere like a Chrysler plant. It seems to me that it’s a question of how far you can push that before the union loses any legitimacy: deals affecting 30% of the membership? 40%? Having a deal that will bind the NHLPA in 2020-21, without 70% of NHL players at that time having any say over does seem to me to cross some sort of an ethical line. Fehr’s obviously cognizant of that; one wonders whether his membership are similarly conscientious.
There’s another angle on this well: the idea of breaking the cycle of lockouts. A lockout is an investment for ownership of NHL teams. They are investing foregone revenues and damage to their brands in the hopes that they’ll be rewarded for that investment with higher profitability or franchise values or both. A longer deal equals a more significant return on their investment. If the NHLPA gives that deal to them, despite the undeniably valid concerns that Fehr raises about the legitimacy of the union entering into such a lengthy CBA, it increases the NHL’s return on its investment of foregone revenue, legal fees and goodwill in a lockout. Owners who come to learn that lockouts are wildly profitable to them have no reason not to do them again in the future.
In other words, it’s a little bit like a variant on the old Ben Franklin line that those who would trade freedom for security deserve neither and will lose them both. If the NHLPA makes concessions on the term of the CBA in order to get back on the ice, they can pretty much guarantee that, in eight years, the 30% of them who remain will be precisely where they are right now, with the NHL prepared to spend an extraordinary amount of goodwill and foregone revenues, knowing that they can amortize it over another long term deal. This, combined with the ethical argument raised by Fehr, strike me as excellent reasons for the players to resist a lengthy term for a CBA.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org