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The NHL lockout – a message for labour

By Dan Oldfield, CMG

As a negotiator for the Canadian Media Guild, I’ve been watching and writing about the circus called the NHL-NHLPA negotiations. It’s an understatement to say the negotiations between team owners and hockey players have been unlike almost any other. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned and questions to ask.

Yes, we may be talking about professional athletes, some of whom make as much or more money in a single season than most of us earn in a lifetime.  But NHL players are not a bunch of whiny millionaires trying to kill the hockey season just to get their way. They are people who put their bodies on the line in a dangerous industry and, as a result, expect a short earnings career. They work for a wage with the goal of providing for themselves and their families. Issues like health benefits, pensions and insurance mean as much to these workers as they do to all workers. This dispute is about splitting the benefits of an industry among 30 owners and about 750 players – the few and the many.

In the past seven years, while the world experienced the biggest economic downturn since the depression, NHL revenues grew by 56 per cent from $2.2 billion to $3.3 billion. This is the context for the full-scale attack on players’ incomes and bargaining rights.

The assault on workers’ incomes and rights has gained speed over the last two decades. Huge multi-nationals aided by the politicians they have bought and paid for are growing bolder and bolder. So called “right to work” states continue to be more the norm than the exception and the race to the bottom is speeding up. Throughout North America, legislation is being passed to limit our rights and boost corporate profits. Governments are moving unilaterally to deny people the rights to withdraw their labour – the one thing workers have to trade.

In the search for cheaper and cheaper labour we’ve seen greedy companies close their doors, sometimes after receiving taxpayer handouts. Our children, many of them with two degrees, are having an extremely difficult time finding decent-paying, full-time jobs.

An imbalance between sweat and money

The worldwide game of monopoly is escalating. The goal is the same – knock off the competitors and end up with all the property. No worker is too young or too powerless to exploit.

A terrible imbalance now exists between the investment of a dollar and the investment of labour. We value a buck over a bucket of sweat. This skewed value system continues to be demonstrated over and over again. Just recently, CN rail announced the elimination of 4,500 jobs – good paying, full time jobs with benefits and pensions. That’s 4,500 families who will not be able to afford a mortgage, car, education, 4,500 incomes that benefit local grocery stores, shops and community infrastructure. This should be devastating news.

But what happened immediately after the announcement? CN stock values jumped by 5 per cent. Yes, more money for the few, fewer jobs for the many.

It’s time for a change

For some guidance on the principle that should lead us I turn to my favourite U.S. Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who pronounced more than a hundred years ago, “Labour is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labour and could not have existed unless labour had first existed. Labour is the superior of capital and deserves much higher consideration. “

Working people have been treated poorely and we’ve accepted abuse, even somehow thinking we deserve it. How is it we see such resentment against unions who are made up of working people? Why has society made us resent those who have decent jobs, decent wages, benefits and pensions? Why do we consider such necessities luxuries?

It is labour that makes an economy. It is good paying jobs that build our society, provide the resources to educate and maintain health and prosperity. Yet somehow we’ve been divided and pitted against each other. Workers need to resolve to fight back. We need a strategy that unites the working poor, seniors, students and all working people. We have common cause whether you are a professional hockey player or stocking shelves. We need to right this ship before it’s too late.




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