Saturday, January 5, 2013

Labour Disruption Night In Canada

Bettmann and Fehr; not quite as exciting as Gretzky and Kurri
On September 15, 2012, the NHL lockout began. Since that date the Canadian sports media has almost exhausted itself covering the issues that divide the players and the owners. This kind of high-profile labour dispute is interesting because it brings into the open a lot of the prejudices, misconceptions, and poorly thought out opinions that are common to any strike or lockout. The nadir in opinion pieces arrived yesterday in a piece by Damien Cox for the Toronto Star. The gist of the article is that fans will no longer be able to take "pride" in being a fan of the NHL, and that fans who are inclined to buy a ticket will feel "dirty" and "ashamed" and will "want to take a shower" afterwards. And the reason for this unhygienic state of affairs? According to Cox's murky logic it's because the two sides have not apologized to the fans for the interruption in service, and because players and management have waged a tough, tactical battle at the negotiating table.

Let's begin with the issue of "pride." Simply put, it makes no sense. No one takes pride in being a passive viewer of entertainment. Are there proud game show viewers? Proud listeners to golden oldies radio? Do fans of James Patterson swell with pride as they read his latest novel? Attaching the concept of pride to watching NHL hockey is just plain silly, but it's not unknown for commentators to try and put a moral or emotional spin on labour disputes, especially when the service being denied is deemed essential. If firemen or nurses or teachers are off the job they're commonly branded as heartless or uncaring or selfish. And even striking workers in fields that aren't seen as critical are sure to hear remarks of the those-ungrateful-bastards-should-just-be-happy-to-have-jobs variety.

What's amusing about sports fans and writers dragging emotion into this labour stoppage is that what they're really annoyed with, but probably wouldn't acknowledge, is that this is what the cold, hard face of capitalism looks like. Capitalists constantly strive to control and lower the cost of labour: it's basically the main pillar of capitalist ideology. It's ironic that the same sports media personalities who have been falling over themselves to congratulate the Toronto Blue Jays on spending tens of millions in the past few months to acquire better players and thereby make more money, then find it offensive that another group of capitalists want to lower costs to enhance profits or trim losses. The two actions represent opposite sides of the same coin: to make a profit you either lower costs or increase market share. To rail against NHL owners for acting in this manner is like complaining that night always follows day. And it's equally foolish to take issue with the trench warfare of a prolonged negotiation process. These are two competing teams of capitalists who, in our free market world, are bound by the profit principle to fight, scratch and claw for every tactical advantage at the bargaining table. To do less than that would be to announce yourself as an incompetent capitalist.

The Cox article, like scores of others written about the lockout, takes a plague-on-both-their-houses approach. Spice is added to this position by the fact that this is a contest between millionaires and billionaires. Yes, indeed, the workers in this dispute are often part of the 1%, but that doesn't take away from the fact that this lockout, like those in any other field, is all about workers trying to safeguard wages and benefits. The one certainty going into this lockout was that NHL players would be making less in the future for doing the same job. The NHLPA's job was, and is, to minimize the pain. Commentary that takes a neutral or hostile view of both parties is effectively taking a pro-management stance. For a very long time now unions of all kinds have been fighting a rearguard action to prevent the erosion of both jobs and earning power. Capitalists hold all the cards, and commentators who like to pretend that there is some kind of equivalency between unions and management are being wilfully ignorant.

Many sports people have also been saying things along the lines of, "What the players have to understand is that the economics of the league have changed." This line of reasoning argues that because some teams are suffering losses (allegedly), the players should share the pain. When teams or leagues are doing well one rarely hears an argument that players should get more. The NFL's recent labour dispute revolved around the league wanting a greater share of the profits. It wasn't because the teams are making less money, it was simply a question of the league wanting more money at the expense of the players. The same holds true in the wider economic world: corporations that report hefty profits typically don't at the same time raise worker's wages; they continue to outsource, "trim the fat", or ship production overseas, and whatever else it was that made them profitable. In a nutshell, when times are good capitalists reward themselves via stock options, dividends, performance bonuses, and so on; when times are bad it's workers who take the first hit. In the case of the NHL, the players are expected to pay for the foolishness of sticking franchises in places like Phoenix and Florida. Basically, workers in any industry, from cars to coal mines, are expected to pay for the mistakes and greed of management

One last point: There's little argument that the mainstream media has become more capitalist-friendly as it's become concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations. This phenomenon has been taken to the next level in Canada by the purchase of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (owners of the Leafs, Raptors, and Toronto FC) by the parent companies of TSN and Sportsnet. A host of print journalists, including Damien Cox, appear regularly on, and draw a paycheque from, the two sports media giants. What we have here is a conflict of interest. Cox and the others are commenting on a labour dispute while in the pay of ownership. Has this produced any obvious cases of bias? Not so far, but the bland neutrality of the both-sides-are-in-the-wrong stance is really just de facto support for the NHL. Cox's main employer is the Toronto Star. If one of that paper's full-time political commentators took a part-time job with the Liberal or Conservative Party they'd be shown the door pretty quickly. For whatever reason, the same standards don't seem to apply to the sports department.

Related post:

Peanuts, Popcorn & Anti-Capitalism 

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