24 June 2009

The loathing of Fehr

Via Lemieux, I'm also behind this Joe Sheehan piece on the retiring Donald Fehr.

There are jobs that demand of the person filling them that they be able to forgo popularity to do them well. No one likes public defenders. No one likes tax auditors. And no one likes the men who have chosen to represent baseball players as if they were a group of laborers in an industry long dominated by a paternalistic management and covered by an unquestioning press largely bought and paid for by the same.

Don Fehr took on this task and did it very well for a quarter-century. He did it as his peers in the NFL, NBA, and NHL all lost major labor battles and saw their unions weakened, or in the NFL's case completely broken and turned into a house union. The relative popularity of Fehr and his NFL counterpart, the late Gene Upshaw, ran in inverse proportion to how good each man was at his job of representing the athletes in their charge. Since 1983, when Fehr took over following the brief, unlamented stint of Ken Moffatt, the MLBPA has established itself as the most powerful players' association in sports, and one of the few successful unions in American labor. They won three grievances over collusion at a time when free agency was still in relative infancy. They beat management in the courts when necessary. Under Fehr's watch, we're into the longest stretch of labor peace since the players were serfs.

There's a worthwhile question over whether a professional athletes' union should be considered a part of "labor." The answer, I think, is a qualified yes. There's no question pro athletes make exponentially more than their value to society, and management has used this to great effect in turning public opinion in its favor while no one takes a second glance at what the owners are making. However, one can see from the reaction to Fehr's career that the Divine Right of Bosses is still in effect regardless of how much money labor's piece of the pie represents.

Labor should look to the MLBPA as an example of what's attainable rather than holding it in contempt. Of course, this is precisely the reason the press is so intent on stamping out the union's legacy and fostering resentment. The contrast with the beatification of Upshaw, who oversaw the complete submission of the NFLPA to the league, is a good one; the media's ideal portrait of a Good Union Boss as opposed to a Bad One. It shouldn't be overestimated how much the relative power of labor has influenced the bourgeouis media's love affair with pro football.