NHL labour talks hurt by need for winners, losers

When it comes to sports, players, fans and media alike crave a decisive result. In labour negotiations, though, this attitude can be fatal. Canadian Media Guild union lead negotiator Dan Oldfield explains why our need for winners and losers is feeding the NHL lockout.
The NHL players who backed union head Don Fehr at a media conference in New York are conditioned to defeat their opponent. But is that mindset hurting labour talks? (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

There is a theory in physics known as the "observer effect" which suggests that the mere presence of observers can change the outcome of a situation. I’ve come to the conclusion that when it comes to the dispute between the NHL and the NHLPA, the theory is a fact.

The problem here, however, isn’t mere observation, but rather who is doing the watching.

When it comes to covering sports, we fans aren’t much interested in win-win. A tie? That’s like kissing your sister. Nope, we fans want winners, and therefore need losers. It’s nice to talk about respecting your opponent, about the grit shown by the defeated, but let’s face it: when we flip open the sports pages or tune into our favourite sportscast, we want to know whether our team won and by how much.

There’s nothing wrong with this when it comes to sports coverage — in fact, we demand it — but it is fatal when it comes to getting negotiated agreements.

In the business world, we frequently see the CEOs of major companies talking about why their merger or partnership is good for all sides. Having winners and losers isn’t necessarily seen as good business. Likewise, labour disputes, in most cases, are settled only when a negotiated agreement meets the objectives of all parties. Better to say that everyone wins, or, at least, everyone wins something.

In stories about the business world, we usually hear from people with corporate and union backgrounds, financial expertise, and other related specialties. The reporting on the performance of the stock market, bank mergers, and communication company takeovers is for the most part done by people with some business knowledge or expertise. Heck, even the weather gets special attention. We have meteorologists to tell us whether we need sunscreen or an umbrella tomorrow.

Here’s a question for you: Is this a labour/management dispute? Or is it a sports story? I suggest it is a labour/management story concerning the economics, working conditions, power and other elements of a particular industry. After all, the NHL is reported to be a $3.3 billion business, and that doesn’t count the many other enterprises that benefit either directly or indirectly from professional hockey. Some estimates put those financial activities at three or four times as much.

Why, then, is this dispute being covered almost exclusively by sports journalists? Sure, most news outlets no longer have labour specialists and therefore have little knowledge of that world. But sports journalists, who write about winning and losing, are probably the least qualified to deal with a labour dispute, which is all about negotiating a win-win.

So here we are with yet another NHL lockout. How is it going to end? When is it going to end? And most importantly, who is going to win? The NHL has demanded another 25 per cent cut in players’ salaries. The players say no way, not again. On the surface this is all about money. But is it really? Do the owners actually really "need" more money? Can the players actually live well with less?

Instead, money has now been mistaken for principle. Each revenue percentage point represents something more in ego, power, face-saving, winning or losing. True to their natural tendencies, the NHL and the NHLPA are treating this negotiation like a game, with offence and defence struggling to dominate. They are only too happy to play to — and for — an encouraging cast of sports experts who also see it as a game. The observers are indeed affecting the outcome.

How and when will it end?  The when is hard to predict, but it will happen at the time when the parties each recognize they are hurting themselves. But this probably won't be for months. The how is easier to answer, because it’s the truth about how most deals get done. Any real progress will happen behind closed doors. Both sides will then be able to make the compromises necessary to bridge the gap. In that process both sides will be able to focus on what they really need, rather than what they want. That’s when the deal gets done.

So the real negotiating will take place in private. But unlike other collective agreements, this deal will be publicly examined and scrutinized, with journalists and analysts rushing to declare a winner. Both sides know this, and are determined not to lose. That's the observer effect at play. So I don't expect the normal give-and-take at the bargaining table. Because every single dollar, gained or lost, represents much more than just money.

That's when you know you're in trouble.

Dan Oldfield is the lead negotiator for the Canadian Media Guild, a former journalist, and a longtime hockey fan.