NHL lockout: Fehr unafraid of long fight
NHL players union chief earned his stripes during contentious labor battles in baseball
Donald Fehr first joined the NHL players union as a consultant after retiring as head of the baseball union.
NEW YORK — The files are crammed into boxes, stacks upon stacks of boxes, shoved to the side of the room. This is prime real estate, a rectangular conference room on the 25th floor of a Manhattan office building.
No one uses the room these days. This is the retirement office of Donald Fehr.
Fehr led the baseball players union for 26 years and through three work stoppages. He retired in 2009, and the union provided him with a room to write his memoirs, keep his files, conduct his business or just come in and say hello every now and then.
Fehr was 61. He had devoted more than half his life to standing up for professional athletes, to fighting the team owners that employed them.
“I knew Don was tired,” said Michael Weiner, who succeeded Fehr as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. “I also knew Don was an intellectually curious guy, and I knew it wouldn’t surprise me if he found something else to do.”
Fehr thought about writing that book, about teaching a class or two, about joining the ranks of arbitrators and mediators. The spotlight could shine on someone else — or so he thought, until the spotlight tapped him on the shoulder one more time.
The hockey players union was a mess. The players hired Fehr as a consultant and then asked him to stay on as executive director. So here he is, once more the dour face of players not playing.
“I just didn’t think he would take on that big a challenge,” Weiner said. “He obviously is up to it. He is engaged. And the players are really fortunate.”
The fans? As Fehr will remind you, he does not represent them.
First battle: baseball
Fehr aspired to be a trial lawyer, dreading the big corporate jobs with what he called “sort of faithless institutions.” He wound up at a small firm and, by chance, in a supporting role in the Andy Messersmith case, which bestowed free agency upon baseball players.
Marvin Miller, the founding director of the baseball players union, was so impressed, he hired Fehr as the union’s in-house counsel in 1977. Fehr ascended to executive director in 1983, in an era when the end of a collective-bargaining agreement invariably led to a work stoppage.
In 1985, the players went on strike, for two days. In 1990, the owners locked out the players, for 32 days. In 1994, the players went on strike in August. The players are not paid in the postseason, and Fehr bet that the owners would settle rather than miss out on the playoff jackpot.
Gary DiSarcina, then the California Angels’ shortstop and player representative, recalled Fehr’s advising the players not to hold workouts during the strike.
“Go on vacation,” Fehr said, according to DiSarcina. “Go do something else. The quicker you get out of shape, the more urgency there will be. They don’t want to cancel the World Series.”
On Sept. 14, 1994, commissioner Bud Selig canceled the World Series.
Selig is famously sensitive to criticism. To this day, he resents that Fehr led the players out on strike and that Selig has been indelibly tagged as the only commissioner ever to call off a World Series.
While Selig wears his heart on his sleeve, Fehr, in his public persona, can appear heartless.
“He is as impervious to media criticism as anyone I’ve ever met,” said Los Angeles Dodgers president Stan Kasten, a friend of Fehr and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Fehr was not standing with the fans of the great American pastime then, just as he is not standing with the fans of the great Canadian pastime now. He is standing with the players, as the head of a union, in a position in which just about all the publicity is bad publicity.
Engaging, but entrenched
The 1995 baseball season would have gone on without Fehr’s players if the owners had had their way. They opened their spring training camps to replacement players, to stalled prospects and failed prospects, and anyone else willing to cross a picket line for the chance to wear a major league uniform.
On the eve of the regular season, U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor — who’s now on the U.S. Supreme Court — issued an injunction that faulted the owners for unfair labor practices, essentially ending the strike.
Fehr’s union had a long memory. The handful of replacement players to surface in the major leagues were barred from union membership, and from receiving even a penny in licensing revenue.
When the Angels won the 2002 World Series — seven years after the strike ended — the name of pitcher Brendan Donnelly, a former replacement player, was omitted from the roster listed on commemorative T-shirts.
The owners had a long memory, too. Within the circles of baseball management, this is the common perception of Fehr and his successor: Fehr wants to make a point; Weiner wants to make a deal.
“Don was there for a lot of fights, and people remember that,” Weiner said. “You’d be surprised at how many management people find Don to be a very engaging guy. It just may not be popular for them to say that.”
Said Kasten: “When there is no particular negotiation going on, he can be a very congenial, even funny, guy.”
Fehr took the union to the brink of another strike in 2002, then negotiated his final collective-bargaining agreement in 2006.
Weiner last year negotiated a deal that will extend baseball’s era of labor peace through 2016. Fehr attributes the era of good feeling to the ultimate victory won by the players in the long strike: The owners lost their bid to impose a salary cap, and they have not tried to install one since.
In baseball, revenue has soared from $2 billion in 1993, the last full season before the strike, to $8 billion this year. Revenue sharing — rich teams helping poor teams — has jumped from zero to $400 million. The Dodgers were sold this year for $2.15 billion, a record price for a sports franchise. The San Diego Padres sold for $800 million, the third-highest price paid for a major league team, despite the small market in which they play and the inability of the new owners to negotiate their own TV deal or develop the land around the ballpark.
Fehr concedes that the NHL players might be stuck with a salary cap — as he warned the baseball players all those years ago, you don’t get back what you give up.
A principled approach
Hockey fans from the beaches of southern California to the frozen ponds of Ontario are sick and tired of the NHL lockout. Fehr appreciates the fan sentiment to just make a deal, but he has no intention of yielding to it.
He breathes fire at the suggestion that he is not acting in the best interests of hockey. His working life has been devoted to challenging owners who say that the best interests of a sport preclude players from negotiating with the team with which they want to play, for whatever salary that team might want to pay.
“We have to remind people that the words we use — free agency, the reserve system, the amateur draft and all that stuff — are simply economic devices to control prices,” Fehr said. “That is all they are. Owners like them, because the way they control the price is to lower the price of what they buy and to increase the price of what they sell. That is what cartels do.”
Then the old baseball guy reached back for one last fastball.
“Player rights are not inconsistent with a booming industry,” Fehr said. “The proof is what the Dodgers sold for.”