Which side are you on? 'Millionaires vs. billionaires' and the political economy of the NHL lockout

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Update -- January 6, 2013: 

Now that the NHLPA has reached a tentative agreement with the NHLA, many people (fans and analysts alike) will begin the process of reviewing the labour negotiations to determine a winner. Much will be said about the players' resolve and the ability of the NHLPA's leadership of Donald Fehr and his brother Steve Fehr to push Gary Bettman and the NHL owners to their limits to secure the best possible deal for the players. However, those of us on the left must be careful not to go too far in seeing the return of NHL hockey as the result of a successful (albeit annoying and frustrating) labour negotiation. The players may have held out for a better agreement, but the owners still won in the short-term and the long-term. Indeed, as Dave Zirin argues in his book Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining The Games We Love, billionaire owners are slowly imposing their will on professional sports (as well as local governments to secure publicly funded arena deals, e.g. Edmonton), and NHL owners are no exception. In a matter of only 10 years, NHL owners have successfully pressured professional hockey players to accept less of the profit from a rapidly growing product with very little reasonable rational: players have agreed to a salary cap and have now negotiated a 10 year collective agreement that will see their share of the NHL’s record profits decrease overall.

But who cares, right? NHL hockey players are just a bunch of greedy millionaires? Doesn’t their “concession bargaining” still leave them with significantly more than the rest of us? What entitles hockey players to get more than 50 per cent of a company’s profits while we are all struggling for living wages? These are entirely fair questions, but they are perhaps not the most helpful ones to be asking. 

In the process of evaluating the NHL lockout, I think it might be useful to return to this article I wrote in late September outlining five key talking points about the political economy of the NHL lockout. The article is in no way a plea for player sympathy. Alternatively, I argue that the way in which people, especially those on the left, talk about the lockout -- and I would now add evaluate its results -- is strategically important. The way we talk about the lockout is important not because professional hockey players are necessarily members of the working class (though this is complicated to be sure), but because Canadians care about hockey, or, more to the point, it is difficult for most people not to pay attention to the media coverage that hockey receives.

Thus, I suggest that we try to change the conversation about the NHL lockout and its results. I contend that “instead of internalizing and rationalizing employer demands that workers accept less so that owners can have more, let us challenge neoliberalism and begin to understand and articulate, once again, that: ‘Labour produces all wealth. All wealth belongs to labour.’ I suppose one lesson that the resolution of the NHL lockout makes quite clear is that “Labour produces all wealth” but the majority of wealth and power still does not belong to Labour. 


"Come all you good workers
Good news to you I'll share
Of how the NHL players
Are fighting for a deal that's fair."

No one will be singing such a modified verse of Florence Reece's classic labour song "Which Side You On" any time soon.

The current NHL lockout is being described as a battle of "millionaires vs. billionaires," of very wealthy owners versus very wealthy players. Despite spin campaigns by both the National Hockey League (NHL) and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA), the media has mostly presented the negotiations between the two groups as being tantamount to the preverbal 1 per cent fighting other members of 1 per cent for a "fair deal." So when the NHL broke off negotiations and locked out the members of the NHLPA on 12:01am last Sunday morning, very few tears were shed on the left for the "plight" of the players. 

None of the usual rallies were organized, no pickets held, and no union solidarity shown or deemed warranted -- and justifiably so, I think. While CAW president Ken Lewenza has gone as far as suggesting the NHLPA deserves our "respect," most people -- including many fans -- simply couldn't care less.

I can understand why. In our current global politico-economic climate, where workers around the world -- from miners in Spain to teachers in Chicago and Ontario -- are struggling against employer and state attacks in the name of austerity, it is truthfully difficult to be moved by the NHLPA’s “fight” against the NHL owners.

I, for one, am not particularly "moved" either but I am disturbed by the way I hear people (and some on the left as well) talking about the lockout in ways that normalize and rationalize neoliberal assumptions that place the onus of making capitalism function smoothly on the backs of those who produce profit for others. In the age of concession bargaining and constant belt-tightening, it seems that we have internalized neoliberalism's redefinition of class as being solely an identity, a status signifying how much one makes rather than one's relationship to how wealth gets made in society. How far we have come from the days of the early twentieth century when "Labour produces all wealth. All wealth belongs to labour!" was a common oppositional demand. 

In this article, I want to suggest that it is important for those of us on the left to, at the very least, be concerned with the way in which the lockout is being discussed in general and how the players’ demands are being represented in particular. Our families, friends, and fellow workers may not be following the struggles of teachers in, say, Chicago, but many of them will be familiar with the NHL lockout and, most likely, will be bemoaning the ridiculousness of player salaries as much or more so than the NHL greed. Instead of contributing to the "players make too much" rhetoric (even if this may be a personal belief), I think we need to find more productive ways to challenge the greed and position of the owners which often gets brushed aside and normalized. This lockout may be an easy opportunity to suggest in our conversations that those who produce wealth for others deserve a larger share of the pie. 

Below I will outline five key talking points that you might use in casual conversations with folks about the lockout.

#1. Lockouts are for bullies 

Just because collective bargaining agreements "expire" does not mean that a lockout is necessary. The 2012-2013 NHL season could have continued as scheduled and the expired collective agreement would have simply carried over until the NHLPA and NHL agreed on a new one. Instead, the NHL decided to lock out the players claiming it could not do business any longer under the established agreement. Of course, this line is hard to buy when many franchises rushed to sign their star players to long, multi-year, multi-million dollar deals in the days before the agreement actually expired. In the past few years there has been a seeming rise in the number of employer lockouts. Just in the last year alone there have been two notable occasions: Canada Post locked out CUPW workers nation-wide and then the Harper government legislated a contract that was worse than Canada Post was originally offering, and then there was the Cat/Electro-Motor lock out of CAW workers in Ontario in which the company asked for drastic wage and benefits cuts before simply closing up shop and moving operations to a union free location in the U.S. when workers refused. Lockouts are increasingly being used as an employer bully-tactic to force workers to accept concessions and poor agreements. Instead of negotiating with bargaining committees in good faith, employers are wielding the lockout as a method of coercion. There have been three lock outs in the NHL in seventeen years.

#2. Putting trickle-down economics on ice 

Often lockouts are justified by employers in the name of austerity; the NHL, however, is relatively flush with cash. In fact, the league is taking in over three billion (though their "net" is somewhat smaller). What is really at the heart of this issue is the revenue sharing provision. In the collective agreement that just expired, players received 57 per cent and the owners received 43 per cent of revenue. In many respects, this provision was agreed to by the owners so that the players would accept a salary cap, something the players initially did not want to do. Now that the salary cap is in place, the league wants to see the revenue sharing closer to 50/50 and keep their salary cap. The league's idea is that as the NHL makes more money the players would, proportionally, make more so such a split would work of for the players in the long run (i.e. they would potentially earn more). This is trickle-down economics at its finest: take a wage cut now and make more later once we ensure that the owners will make more. 

#3. Challenging neoliberalism

Why should workers take reductions in living standards, accept cuts to social services, and acquiesce to concessions at the bargaining table (if they are lucky enough to have a union to represent them at all) just to keep capitalism profitable? Employers and governments the world over have, since the 1970s, been trying to sell workers on the idea that it is their responsibility to be flexible and adapt and adjust to changing economies instead of capitalists shouldering the burden. While employers have been making record profits, workers are being asked to take less and less. In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey calls this process "accumulation by dispossession." When capitalism has hit particular limits to growth, employers turn inwards to cut from existing structures (from social services to attacks on unions) to ensure their profit continues to grow exponentially. The NHL's locking out of the NHLPA at a time of the league's highest profitability needs to be understood in this context. 

#4. Collateral damage

 While the billionaire owners can afford to sacrifice short-term profits for, what they hope will be, long-term profitability, those workers surrounding the game do not have the same luxury. From the staff of NHL clubs to parking lot attendants and unionized employees selling food at games -- real people who are not millionaires get hurt by the work stoppage. Even the mascot of the Florida Panthers, “Stanley C. Panther,” recently received a pink slip! I think the mascots need a union! This lockout may be talked about as a struggle of "millionaires vs. billionaires," but such rhetoric really doesn't capture the larger political economy of the game.

#5. Wider influence 

Union struggles do not happen in a vacuum. At a time when the young players in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) are trying to form a union and fight long-delayed representation and justice, the NHLPA has the opportunity to stand up for the rights of labourers to receive fair compensation and set a good example (even if they are not exactly the "waving the red/black flag" types). More importantly, the outcomes of such high-profile negotiations (at least in Canada -- here in New York the Yankees are fighting for a playoff spit and it's now football season, which also has a labour dispute with its referees) can set significant precedents and significantly influence the direction of subsequent negotiations in other leagues and industries. For example, the 2011 NBA lockout, in which the players accepted a reduction in revenue sharing that will see them take 49 per cent instead of 51 per cent in coming years, undoubtedly is influencing the NHL's demands for more "equitable" revenue sharing). And while the wealthy members of the NHLPA (though we must emphasize that not all players make the multi-million contracts of stars like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin) have seemingly nothing in common with, say, members of the CAW or even unorganized or unemployed workers, defending against the attack on people who make profits for others is something we, believe it or not, have in common.

I am not suggesting that after having read these key points you should now go out and organize a rally, hold a picket, or issue deep and moving statements of solidarity with players. This article is not a plea for player sympathy.

But instead of internalizing and rationalizing employer demands that workers accept less so that owners can have more, let us challenge neoliberalism and begin to understand and articulate, once again: "Labour produces all wealth. All wealth belongs to labour."

This is not simply a boring struggle of "millionaires vs. billionaires;" this is part of our larger struggle -- a struggle with both material and ideological elements, as the Quebec student strike has shown us -- of shifting the blame pattern upwards. Which side are you on?

“Workers, can you stand it?
Oh, tell me how you can
Will you fight neoliberalism 
Or buy the BS of Gary Bettman?”

Still doesn't sound right, does it?


Sean Carleton is a union organizer and a PhD student at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. He is currently living in New York City.


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