In his 32 years as general counsel, then head of the baseball union, I didn’t really interview Don Fehr 1,000 times. But it sure felt like it. My head still hurts.
Now, hockey has the migraine. Two years ago, Fehr became the head of the NHL union that got drubbed nearly eight years ago when a season was canceled but owners won a 24 percent rollback in player salaries. This time, owners want more concessions. Result: a lockout with 327 canceled games. So far.
If hockey wants to avoid losing a second season under Commissioner Gary Bettman’s watch, it should widen its analysis from issues like “core economics” and “player contracting.” The NHL had better figure out Fehr, how he runs a union, what his strategies are and, especially, why baseball got crushed time after time. The subtext of these negotiations is the Fehr factor.
Long negotiations have key junctures — like Wednesday. One Fehr method is to identify moments of discovery when his union can determine the other side’s true intentions. The union pushes an aggressive proposal, one that usually addresses the concerns of moderate members in the union. That way, it either reaches an agreement soon or the membership toughens once it “discovers” that the actual strategy of the other side is a long fight.
“We have moved far more than halfway,” said Fehr of a new union proposal on Wednesday. “It’s about as good as we can do,” he added, saying the two sides are $182 million apart over the five-year deal. That amount, divided by five, is nothing to risk a season for. But you can be sure that “$182 million” is precisely defined — by Fehr. Owners may do their numbers a very different way. Talks ended for the day with what Fehr called “no movement.”
“We’re still far apart,” said Bettman.
After covering six work stoppages, a canceled World Series and three collusion cases during Fehr’s time in baseball, I have a clear sense of how he acts at inflection points. First, Fehr means exactly what he says; previous posturing is set aside when phrases appear like “about as good” as it’ll get.
Also, his membership isn’t just backing him; it really is their deal. It took baseball owners 20 years to grasp that Fehr isn’t a puppeteer. He educates, he shapes, but he doesn’t decide. The players do. That’s what empowered the MLBPA and made it so tough. Fehr will reduce demands rather than negotiate without full support. That’s core. It’s not changing.
So it’s likely that Wednesday’s proposal is a hand extended to owners but also an opportunity for Fehr to insure that nobody inside his tent can say, “We never really tried as hard as we could.”
If the NHL doesn’t want a deal now, or not a deal with a structure like the current union proposal, if that’s not the NHL’s master plan, then the players may “discover” that reality if the owners give a hard, “No.”
Maybe things are different in hockey. Maybe, in two years, Fehr hasn’t solidified his members to anything like the degree he did in baseball. But if he has replicated his MLBPA work, then rejecting Wednesday’s union proposal as a framework for a final compromise is a huge risk for hockey.
The biggest mismatch I’ve ever covered was not on a field. It was organized baseball against the MLBPA. And, mostly, it was unnecessary. Baseball owners refused to see the union or Fehr for what they clearly were.
MLB demonized Fehr personally. Despite seeing dozens of players constantly involved in every bargaining session, they refused to accept that mere “ballplayers” actually understood the issues — sometimes better than they did. Owners, often fighting among themselves, didn’t grasp that players formed a negotiation information tree, reporting back to all players.
For decades, many owners hoped that Fehr, like Marvin Miller before him, somehow had the players mesmerized, hypnotized. If they could just snap their fingers the right way, players would awake to their benevolence. NHL owners need to understand Fehr’s first two rules. First, the players are saturated with info and totally trust its source — other players, not Fehr. Second, a Fehr union will always bring a weaker deal for stronger backing.
Finally, after going 0 for 8 in work stoppages, canceling the 1994 World Series and losing three collusion cases in the 1980s at a cost of $280 million, baseball figured it out. The ’94 strike left both sides, and the game, bloody. MLB finally quit framing the union as an ideological foe and began to work with it in grudging, respectful, adversarial semi-harmony. Things got better.
That labor peace has lasted 17 years with no end in sight. The idea that Fehr, 64, was a radical or didn’t want owners to get filthy rich (unless players did, too) or wouldn’t take a fair deal if one were offered — that all died in the last century. Ironically, the stain on Fehr’s baseball reputation is that he was so focused on business prosperity, which would flow to players and agents, that the union was cynically resistant to a vast workplace health issue, opposing the testing of union members for performance enhancing drugs.
Financially, baseball has never been healthier. It’s gushing cash. The best thing that’s happened to baseball in modern times, aside from wangling free parks at mostly public expense, was MLB’s realization that a strong union, fair labor policy, fiercely negotiated, and booming business were compatible. The price baseball paid to learn that lesson was astronomical.
Now, it’s hockey’s turn. The most troubling development to me is that hockey’s leaders now sound like MLB owners a generation ago. It’s like a time warp. Two weeks ago, stories appeared intimating that players weren’t getting a straight story from Fehr, that he had his own agenda and owners’ concepts were not getting to the membership in a pure form. That is the one tactic that always backfired when baseball owners used it. It did again.
Fehr pointed out that “19 players” were at the negotiating table when the proposal, that he supposedly misrepresented, was discussed. Within days an NHL player had called Bettman a “cancer,” another called him “an idiot.”
Hiring Don Fehr, the Sun Tzu of jock labor, to face NHL owners in a lockout is like getting the Godfather to help you fix a parking ticket.
NHL leaders need to realize, in a fraction the time it took baseball, that if you go to the mat with a Fehr union, everybody suffers, but you might get it worse. If you work with them, then one day you wake up and Albert Pujols has a $275 million contract and the Dodgers sell for $2 billion.
For previous Thomas Boswell columns, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.