Monday, September 17, 2012

How the NHL Lockout is Like the Public Service

True statement: Hockey fans who will never see a million dollars in their lifetime find it difficult to understand the trials and tribulations of billionnaire owners locking out millionnaire players. Very true. But when you think about the reactions from the public, the NHL lockout is not that different from the public service wage cuts and hiring freezes that were recently in the news in Canada.

Consider these parellels: the public service, as a whole, is viewed from the outside as a place of privilege. Lots of job security, excellent wages, competitive working conditions, enviable holidays and various types of leave for family, medical and other. Which was why when the cuts and freezes were implemented, very few people outside the public service had any sympathy. No matter how unfair it was to ask employees to give up benefits or do more work with less people, the public perception was always the same: boo hoo.

This situation does mirror the NHLPA. While it is unfair to ask the players to concede millions of dollars in a revenue-sharing plan which already benefits the owners, instead of focusing on that aspect, the public only chooses to see the dollar signs, the likes of which they will never see.

Context is important. Just as a low wage earner with no job security jeers at the public servant who makes 6 figures and can never be fired, so does the NHL fan look at the players with their millions and figure that it's no big deal. When you're already in a privileged place, it's difficult for people to sympathize when you lose some of the privileges that you already have. We call this the 'suck it up princess' theory.

In a bargaining process, there's always a certain amount of give and take. The public service fought hard to not have a wage freeze, although the government argued fiscal responsibility and administrative efficiencies. The public service argued for jobs protection and cost of living. The rest of the public mostly sided with the government in this public relations battle, most with the image useless desk jockeys surfing the net. Both the public service in Canada and the NHLPA were called overpaid bums. It's a funny thing to have in common, but there it is.

The NHL board of commissioners, much like the Canadian government, is claiming that it overpays its employees. The job cuts spoke loudly and clearly: we pay public servants too much money, just as Bettman claims that the NHL pays its players too much money. It was always a question of money. Painting its employees as greedy in the media was the weapon of choice for both groups. Another thing in common.

How did the public relations war end for the government and public service? The public service was cut drastically, to cheers from many less fortunate parts of the country. Cheers that may die down as essential services slow or disappear completely without ressources. How will it end for the NHL and NHLPA? So far, feelings are pretty mixed. But like the public service cuts, nobody ended up feeling very happy.

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