Baseball has long been the sport most known for unstable labor relations, but that perception has changed.
Since the 1994 strike that canceled that year’s World Series, both the NBA and NHL have suffered work stoppages as well as declines in relative popularity. In fact, the NHL suffered two lockouts over that span, the most recent of which canceled the entire 2004/2005 season, and early indications are there could be another work stoppage on the horizon.
After the most recent lockout, NHL owners absolutely obliterated a weak players union, forcing upon them a system that is one-sided in favor of ownership. However, it now seems as if the NHL players union is intent on rebuilding its stature. With the league’s CBA set to expire in September 2012, the NHLPA has taken the first step toward electing Donald Fehr as executive director. That’s great news for the players and bad news for the sport’s owners.
Fehr, who has been serving as an unpaid advisor to the NHLPA since November 2009, may be a newcomer on the hockey scene, but his reputation as an expert union director was long established in the game of baseball. Fehr joined the MLBPA in 1977 when it was under the direction of Marvin Miller and eventually became the union’s head in 1983. During his 26 year tenure as the MLBPA leader, Fehr beat the baseball owners in just about every negotiation and legal battle. For the sake of hockey fans, the league’s owners would be wise to not underestimate Fehr if he is elected to lead the union.
The knee jerk reaction from fans who are not educated on the issues is to decry the contribution of the MLBPA, but the reality is the players union has been a driving force for betterment in the game. Aside from the inherent unfairness in the reserve clause, baseball was plagued by an indifferent and inefficient ownership group that viewed their overlord status as a birthright. Not only did that mean players were treated unfairly, but it also meant the game itself was allowed to stagnate.
By forcing the owners to properly value the players, the efforts of Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr also effectively forced them to properly value the game. Instead of having innovation left in the laps of an old guard that seemed content to take in a modest profit, the era of free agency allowed more innovative owners to expand the game beyond its limited means. It is not surprising that baseball’s revenue has grown exponentially since the strike of 1994. Instead of holding out hope that somehow they could break the union, that last and most costly defeat finally convinced baseball owners that they would be better off growing the game instead of trying to cannibalize the player’s portion of the pie. As a result, not only has baseball’s revenues grown at rates better than even the NFL’s, but for most of the last decade owners were raking in a larger percentage of income than any other sport.
For almost two decades, NFL owners have been able to convince a gullible media and fan base that a salary cap is in the best interest of competitive balance, when in reality it is merely a cost control device. Not surprisingly, the same owners now seem determined to push the envelope further by seeking to lower the pool of revenue allotted to the players. Judging by initial reaction, the league’s thrust seems to have full fan support. Normally, that would be bad news for a sadly weak union, but this time around, the NFLPA doesn’t seem as likely to roll over.
In Thursday’s NFL opener, players on both the Saints and Vikings lifted a finger in the sky to represent union solidarity. The move was derided by many as selfish, considering the recent economic downturn in the country, and inappropriate. Under new executive director DeMaurice Smith, however, the NFLPA doesn’t seem as if it concerned with misguided public perception. Again, that’s good news for the players and bad news for the owners.
So far, the NFLPA has been about more than just symbolism. According to ESPN.com, the New Orleans Saints recently voted 59-0 to decertify the union in the event a impasse is reached during future CBA negotiations. Every other NFL team is also expected to do the same before the end of the year. Although decertification would not come into play until after the current season, the preemptive decision clearly shows that this time around the NFLPA is prepared for a lengthy battle. Overcoming the historically weak tendency of the football union will still be a challenge, but with so much money at stake for the owners, it may be the latter who now have more to lose.
Often derided by fans and media members for being the only sport without a salary cap, it now appears as if players in other sports are finally realizing that baseball is the game to emulate. It may take a strike or a lengthy lockout, but using the MLBPA as a roadmap would be the best way for each sports’ respective unions to not only achieve economic fairness, but ensure the future betterment of the games they play.