Articles & Publications

The National Hockey League Negotiations: Will Mediation Make a Difference?

Posted November 29, 2012 by Daniel P. Dozier in Alternative Dispute Resolution Publications, Articles & Publications

As the NHL lockout reaches its 10th week, it is hard from the outside to see any progress. Both the All-Star game and the Winter Classic have been cancelled and the two sides seem just as far apart as they were three months ago.
But one recent development which should delight hockey fans and ADR professionals alike is that the owners and players have finally agreed to mediation. Both sides have agreed that ongoing negotiations will be conducted under the auspices of mediators from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Although this may not seem like a huge development it is a step in the right direction. The owners and players union have been negotiating for months to no avail. There is hope that with the assistance of the mediator they may begin to make some progress.

Some collective bargaining disputes are very contentious; both parties play "hardball" to get the best deal for their side. They often, as here, resort to lockouts or strikes. Both tactics are designed to put economic pressure on the other party. The problem is that such tactics force the parties into 'win-lose' scenarios in part because the high cost of applying economic pressure compels parties to justify the costs of the pressure to their own stakeholders by 'winning.'

This results in both sides finding it difficult to properly assess the short- and longer-term costs associated with their hardball tactics. To justify the costs and defend their actions to their own stakeholders, the owners and players engage in positional bargaining rather than thinking creatively and seeking solutions. This may be one explanation of why mediation has a lower success rate in collective bargaining disputes than in other arenas; the recent NBA and NFL lockouts are prime examples.

But even if mediation is not successful in the NHL dispute, agreeing to mediation shows that both sides are interested in being seen by their stakeholders and the public as reasonable and willing to negotiate. It shows that the parties are aware of the costs and risks of alienating their own stakeholders. The desire to be seen as reasonable may allow space for the parties, with the assistance of a skilled mediator, to engage in a serious conversation about the issues separating them.

Both sides would be wise to keep the costs of a failure to achieve a settlement in the forefront as they enter into mediation. As the mediators most assuredly will point out many times and in different ways, the costs of not settling will be high, probably higher than the costs of a settlement and will unquestionably end in a "lose-lose" situation.

Absent settlement, the consequences are likely to be union decertification; litigation; the loss of yet another hockey season; disaffected arena owners and local businesses, subjection to the mercy of judges and, possibly, the permanent loss of hockey's fan base, without whom, there is no sport.
This is a situation we'll be following closely. Hopefully both sides will see the merit of mediation and can follow the precedents set by baseball and other collective bargaining negotiations that have benefited from mediation.

Prepared with Assistance from Michael Ciccarone