From the NHL to Caterpillar, aggressive employers more willing to use lockouts
By Ken Lewenza and Don Fehr, Toronto Star, December 10, 2012
Ken Lewenza is president of the Canadian Auto Workers union. Don Fehr is executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association.
You might think that a typical Canadian worker (who makes, on average, about $22 an hour) would have little in common with a professional hockey player whose annual income is measured in six or seven figures — other than that they both love Canada’s national sport.
However, there are more similarities between workers and hockey players than you’d think. Both find themselves dealing these days with employers who are more aggressive than they’ve ever been. More specifically, hockey players are the latest victims of an increasingly common, aggressive management strategy: locking out workers when they won’t accept management demands for deep concessions.
It used to be that unions were the more likely party to precipitate a work stoppage, in their quest to lift wages and labour standards over time. Nowadays, in contrast, it is employers who feel they hold the upper hand. They are willing to shut down operations altogether, imposing substantial economic losses on their workers, on their own firms, and on the broader economy, until they get what they want. And they want a lot: historic concessions in wages, benefit packages, and security for the working people who ultimately produce the wealth.
We’ve seen this aggressive strategy invoked by Caterpillar in London, Ont. — which earlier this year locked out its workers, then fired them altogether. Rio Tinto locked out workers for months in Alma, Que., as did U.S. Steel in Hamilton. Each of these companies was profitable. Yet all felt empowered to squeeze even more from their workers, extorting historic rollbacks in wages and benefits.
Worried by this trend, many labour relations experts have proposed legislative measures to limit the power of companies to starve out their workers through long lockouts. In Manitoba, for example, long disputes can be referred (by either party) for binding arbitration; this makes employers think twice before launching such aggressive attacks on their own workers. For now, however, the power of employers to lock the doors is largely unfettered.
This winter the NHL owners are the latest to invoke the same aggressive tactic. The league has enjoyed seven straight years of record revenues (ever since the last lockout back in 2004-05). Last year revenues reached $3.3 billion, an all-time high. The industry is profitable, and the franchises worth more than ever (the value of Toronto’s franchise alone is now estimated at more than $1 billion). Yet the owners have precipitated a long lockout, trying to starve out the players and fundamentally rewrite the economics of the game.
It’s not the first time lockouts have been used in professional sports. The NHL locked out the players before in 1994-94 and 2004-05 — so this is becoming a regular habit for the owners. More recently, the NFL locked out its referees, hoping to squeeze a few more drops of profit from the operations. We all know how that ended: in embarrassment and lasting damage to the sport’s credibility.
This time around, the owners’ demands are especially eye-popping: reducing players’ share of revenues, restricting the length of player contracts, weakening free agency, and ending salary arbitrations. This would dramatically redivide the NHL’s economic pie, fattening owners’ profit margins at the direct expense of the players who make it all happen. The burden of the lockout also falls on the fans who just want to see hockey, and on the tens of thousands of workers and small businesses who depend directly or indirectly on hockey for their livelihood.
Remember, hockey players may earn high incomes for the few years they are playing. But for most, their earnings capacity after retirement from the league is limited — and average playing careers are short, due to injuries and other factors. Like other workers, hockey players have little control over the direction of the business. They deserve security, respect and a fair share of the wealth they produce with their sweat and effort.
The aggressive position of the NHL owners is more than just an affront to players and fans of the game. It is a sign of the very worrying times we live in. Employers — no matter how wealthy or profitable they already are — feel entitled to wring even more from the pockets of their employees, regardless of the collateral damage to families, communities and the whole economy.
If the owners get away with doing this to professional hockey players, despite their unique skills and talents, it is little wonder that so many employers feel emboldened to do the same to any of us.
Add to this story the plight of Ontario elementary and secondary teachers, both of whom are currently engaged in work reductions and stoppages, to protest the loss of their bargaining rights.
The Michigan legislature today will vote to approve bills that would emasculate unions in both the public and private sector, depriving them of the access to union dues that keep the movement afloat and alive. (See acorncentreblog.com,
"Michigan's 'right-to-work' bill will gut unions, December 11, 2012)
The Canadian federal government has ordered union workers back to work, in some cases, with wages and benefits that were less than they had already negotiated with their employer, prior to taking strike action.
Wisconsin's governor Scott Walker, also financed by the Koch brothers, as is the Michigan initiative, removed the hard-won rights of labour in the public sector, and stirred considerable public protest for his "public service".
There are now several (I believe it is 24!) states that have already passed legislation similar to that going through the Michigan government today...
Labour is, without doubt, under fire...and needs all the voices it can muster to wage the kind of class warfare that people like the Koch brothers have initiated.