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American National Hockey union crushed

Andy Newman

Hockey memorialProfessional sports players are not the most obvious trade unionists, but we should remember that one of the most significant victories for a British trade union in recent years was the deal won by the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) four years ago, increasing its share of the television money from an offered 10 million per year to 52.5 million over three years. After a 99% yes vote for strike action, a complete shut down of Premier League football would have started on 1st December 2001, except that the bosses capitulated at the last minute.

While the multi-million pounds salaries paid to the sport's stars gain headline attention, many professionals achieve only modest incomes, failing to make the grade, or having their career terminated early through injury or bad luck. The PFA's funds goes towards retraining players from the lower leagues when their careers are ended. It is remarkable that the multi-millionaires were prepared to strike for the less fortunate and lower paid. This was a good example of solidarity and could be used by trade union activists up and down the country as an example of what collective action could win.

So it is tragic that the American National Hockey League Players Association has been crushed after a season long lock out. This is the worst defeat for an American labour organisation since Ronald Reagan smashed the PATCO Air Traffic Controllers.

As Damien Cox of the Toronto Star put it, "Only the 30 owners can really be excited about the results of this lockout, for they have won a lopsided decision over the once-powerful players, leaving the union humiliated and divided after surrendering close to $2 billion in salaries and gaining little in return."

Socialist sport journalist, Dave Zirin, observes: "The terms of surrender include a 24% pay cut across the board for every player -- guaranteed contracts be damned. But that's not the bitterest pill. The deal also includes the one concession that the union swore it would reject: a "hard salary cap." Now, no NHL team can exceed $39 million in spending. For clubs that already spend more than this, players will either have to renegotiate or be cut from the team, and accept two-thirds of their salary as compensation.

According to Zirin, players are already breaking ranks to show their frustration. Detroit Red wings goalie and former team union rep Manny Legace told the Associated Press, "We lost a season for no reason. It makes no sense what we ended up doing. For years, Bob [Goodenow - their union leader] was telling us, 'No cap. Owners aren't telling us the truth about their books.'  Then after saying we wouldn't even consider a salary cap, he backed down on that at the last minute just before the lockout. It was too late, and now we're taking a worse deal."

Of course the salaries played to professional sportsmen and women are absurdly high, and many fans will have little sympathy. But surely it is better that the money goes to the players who have the skill and talent, and risk injury, rather than to the shareholders of the clubs?

And in the case of American Hockey, the players have been forced to carry the can for the disastrous mismanagement of the sport by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Under his ten year reign the NHL has spread out from its northern base and expanded into the sun belt, where there are few fans. It is as if Rugby League were to start loads of new clubs in the West Country, and then give Taunton and Exeter as much influence in the governing body as Wigan and Leeds. Expansion and relocation has increased the cost base of the sport without bringing in new revenue.

As Zirin says: "Bettman has bet the future of hockey on failing franchises in small markets. By doing so, he has shifted the balance of power toward owners who represent the weakest clubs. The NHL is now like a Blockbuster Video that only sells Betamax. That's why, for fans, this labor deal is so wretched. It strengthens the hand of the worst teams in the league while protecting the fundamental problem: too many teams, too many games, and too much product. "

The deal that has been struck is a disaster where 30 billionaires have taken on and broken a union.


Dave Zirin's new book "What's My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" is in stores now!
You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing


July 2005


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