Friday, 14 September 2012

Gary Bettman is an awful partner

My first real job growing up was working on tobacco farms.  It was strenuous, dirty work, but I was a kid and didn't know any better.  I was probably working harder at home on chores, so it was almost like a vacation when I was at work.  Plus I got paid what was fat cash for a teenager in the mid-seventies.

Harvest time could go a number of ways based on your crew.  You were all seated on the same harvester that crawled up and down the field, you were responsible for picking tobacco leaves on the plants in your row.  If you had coworkers who'd done a few seasons, you could go at a pretty good clip, maybe even second or third gear with a mid-throttle.  Some seasons though some newbie would join and be overwhelmed and we'd need to putter along in first gear on idle to accommodate him.  Either way, you got paid a day rate, you were done your day when you'd filled a kiln.

So we were happy summers when we had a fast team and could knock off around 1400 hr or so, we'd sometimes skip lunch and finish even earlier.  The crew back at the farm who hung the leaves in the kiln were happy with short days too.  When we dragged up and down at a snail's pace and barely got home for dinner, nobody was.  And on those slow days, we'd start yapping and moaning, since that's all we could do to pass the time, pick tobacco at a mind-numbingly slow pace and talk with each other, while the newbie had a stress aneurysm trying to keep up.

One day we were talking about wages.  We spoke covetously of some farms that seemed like Shangri-La, with spic and span barns and kilns and kickass gleaming equipment, where they apparently paid as much as $35 or $38 a day.  We were only making $26, a raise over the $24 we'd received the previous season.  One wag piped up that Monsieur Laporte, our employer, used to pay his guys $32, but dropped the rate the year we joined or the one before.  We understood that we got paid lower rates, his farm was smaller, and so were his kilns, so that our harvester was a six seater instead of an eight-seater at those bigger operations, and for him a day's harvest wasn't as lucrative as at those big places.  But still, we thought...

Well, Monsieur Laporte got wind of this, and midway through the next day, he drives to the field we were at in his truck and hops out, with a stack of ledgers under his arm.  He calls us over and opens his meticulous books to us, who are at this point embarrassed and crestfallen that this nice man feels he has to explain himself to us young punks.  But he insists and he lays it all out on the table, he shows us the entries for wages for this season and the years we worked for him before, and the years before we joined, and he put to rest the rumours we'd floated.  It's all there in the clearly marked ledgers, one for each season, and he points out the figures with his beaten thumb.

We felt yea big.  Monsieur Laporte wasn't mad at us, he seemed just as embarrassed as we did, but he felt it necessary to clear the air, and for us to understand that he was paying us fairly, according to what he brought in, what he could afford, and what he always paid for his pickers.  When he left and we got back to work, we talked about how he was a good guy and always treated us fairly, how he always threw a big party at the end of the season, how when the first frost approached and we slept at his farm's bunkhouse he'd wake us up every two hours or so and we'd run out to the field and change the irrigation sprinklers from one field to another in the hopes that the warm water would prevent the tobacco from freezing, and he was so appreciative of us for our work.  On the really cold and rainy days when you're getting slapped in the face with wet tobacco leaves and you're soaking wet no matter how good your rain gear is, he'd show up with his bottle of rum and pour us all a shot, and laugh along with everybody as each downed his shot and grimaced.  "That'll warm up your fingers," he'd intone.

I thought of Monsieur Laporte while I watched Sneerin' Gary Bettman condescend to the reporters in his Thursday press conference.  He let out some whoppers.  One that made me sit up and laugh and rewind my PVR to ensure I'd heard him correctly, was when he said that in 2005 they come to an agreement that was fair to both parties, but in hindsight it had been "too fair."  Exclamation point!

Another good one was when he kept saying that costs were rising, his only justification for wanting to claw back 10% of the players' take.  He mentioned that things such as jet fuel had increased, a necessary item for the charter planes the teams use.  He explained that expenses for the benefit of the players, such as bigger medical teams, training staff, and coaching staffs had also risen.

Now, these last costs seem to me costs that a winning organization would bear to be competitive, since owners usually want to win Stanley Cups and championships, and it has never historically been the role of the players to bear these costs.  In any event, this is where Gary Bettman is the anti-Monsieur Laporte.  If he had, as he told us he would after the last lost season, treated the players as partners he would work with to grow the game for everyone's benefit, he'd now be able to take out his ledger and show the players like Monsieur Laporte did with us.  "Look boys, we agreed on 45-55 last time around, with you guys getting 56 and 57% if revenues grew, but lookie here, our expenses have risen at double the rate of revenues.  Jet fuel is such and such, equipment costs are 300% higher, most teams have doubled their training staff to help prevent injuries and recover quicker, we've had to add doctors to deal with the concussion problem and make your workplace safer, ...."  If he valued the players, and if they trusted him, they could enter a discussion where there'd be a collaborative tone, not an adversarial one.

Instead, he flatly states that they're paying the players too much, apparently based on a value judgment, on the owners' druthers.  He refers to the recent NFL and NBA settlements as examples to justify that 57% for the players is too high, but this was something he was deadset against in 2005, brusquely stating that hockey was its own sport and had its own conditions that didn't lend itself to comparisons.

At the end of the year parties, Monsieur Laporte would give you your last paycheque, one that usually had a small bonus if the harvest looked promising, and he'd ask you what your plans were.  We were all going back to school, most of us had already missed a week or so of classes to help bring in the harvest.  He assured you that you had a job guaranteed the next summer if you wanted one, but that he'd understand if you got another job somewhere and needed to save up more money for university.  He clearly seemed interested in our future and our success, and as a result so were we, we worked hard for him, not just as we normally would at any job, but because he was a nice man and we wanted nothing but the best for him.

If Gary Bettman wasn't the twerp that he is, the little guy with the Napoleon complex who has to browbeat everyone and show that he's the smartest guy in the room, he could have counseled the owners differently and have approached these negotiations with a different tack.  There would have been a chance that some common ground could have been found.  Instead, the players see a sneaky little liar who is trying to worm his hands into their pockets, and the reporters who cover the game see it as much the same.  It's no surprise that this will be the third lockout on his watch.  It's indicative of who he is, and his leadership and management style.  It also reflects very clearly what he values most: money over hockey.

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