Oldfield: Collective bargaining a complicated process

While fans remain frustrated with the NHL lockout, collective bargaining is a complicated process that takes time to resolve, says Canadian Media Guild lead negotiator Dan Oldfield.
While fans remain frustrated with the NHL lockout, collective bargaining is a complicated process that takes time to resolve. (CBCSports.ca)

Collective bargaining is a complicated process.

It’s not like negotiating for a new car, where you simply walk away if you don’t like the model or the price.

It’s complicated because, while you can delay bargaining, you can’t actually avoid it.

It is conducted in an environment with multiple relationships — union/management, employee/employer, employee-employee, manager-manager.

As I've said before, it’s a good thing the parties have agreed to negotiate with each other - and not with the fans or through the media.

I’m a big believer in keeping the talks in the room. There will be plenty of time to talk about the deal at ratification and afterward. 

The good news seems to be that the parties have found a path. You have to know these talks would not have started or have continued for four days if a deal was not in sight.

So why hasn’t the tentative agreement been reached and celebrated?

Getting the big pieces in place is not where the negotiations end. Any outside observer who thinks the parties haven’t already realized where the deal is simply don’t understand the process.

I’m sure there are many details of the big ticket items still to be resolved but it will be against an agreed upon framework.

While they may have already agreed on a 50-50 revenue split, they may not have settled on the definition of revenue.

They may have also agreed to honour all existing contracts, but is that in a payment over a number of years, immediately, or at career end?

The length of contracts and eligibility for free agency are issues already identified, but will there be one rule for existing players, and another for new players?

Issues need to be hammered out

These are issues of timing, calculations, and wording that need to be hammered out.

Additionally, and just as importantly, there are likely dozens of other smaller issues — some already on the table and some that will emerge — that have to be resolved along the way.

Each of these has the ability to slow or stall the process. Each of these has their own advocates who feel strongly about these issues, even if they aren't defined as a "big ticket."

That in itself can be a long process, as different issues can take on different levels of importance with the people at and near the table.

And there's this to consider, too: Internal negotiations are sometimes even more important than negotiations with the other party. Remember, the people at the table must ultimately answer to their constituencies.

But how they do that is different, too. A union is a democracy, with, in this case, something like 720 players, each of whom has an equal vote. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has just 30 owners to contend with, and under the terms of his agreement with them, wields enormous power. But each still must satisfy the needs of their people that pay their salaries.

Because in the end, it is the owners and the players who have to sign off — not just the negotiators — so making sure there is consensus around the deal is critical.

A deal takes time. I often tell people involved in a work dispute that if the answer we want is a "no" I can get that right away. If the answer we want is a "yes" it will always take longer.

So while we wait, take comfort in the fact that there are — finally — motivated parties working hard at finding resolution.

When you are stuck, it is useful to explore what else can be brought to the process to get you past the blockage.

I’d be saying "take all the time you need."

It’ll be better for the league, the players, and the fans if they finally get it right.

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