US Women’s Hockey Shuts Out Management

Few topics are more politically divisive in the American workplace than the presence and efficacy of unions. Despite the continued downward trend of unionization in this country, the benefits of collective bargaining remain apparent, as illustrated by the recent victory of the striking US women’s ice hockey team.

AP Photo/Petr David Josek

Years in the making, a threatened boycott of the World Championships yielded the following concessions (among others) from US Hockey: annual $70,000 player salaries with bonus opportunities; a $950,000 compensation pool for players (likely comprising back pay); wages for Olympic training; the same amount of meal money as the men’s team ($50 per diem); investment in youth programs; and health insurance that is equal to the men’s team.

As with most strikes, the players’ campaign included public pleas for attention on the issues they face, drawing support from 16 US senators. More importantly, the strike included tactical negotiation by waiting out the stonewalling efforts of US Hockey (a deal was struck less than four days before the World Championships began). The gamble paid off. US Hockey had no choice but to capitulate when prospective alternatives — including Division III players, high school players in the 16 and under leagues, and even “beer league” players— rejected requests to replace the women’s team. The notion that the Americans would field a competitive squad that could vie for the country’s eighth world championships victory in the last ten was becoming a pipe dream. The more humiliating possibility of the games being hosted in the United States without the home team was also in play.

Whether fans can accept their potential deprivation of entertainment or not, the reality is the wages and working conditions of a workforce dramatically improved as a direct result of collective action. Given the history, which included cordial if not confidential attempts to gain economic parity with the men’s ice hockey team, the recent strike was both the last, and apparently only viable, option for the players’ demands to be met. Absent this bold move, wages would have remained as a $20,000 stipend for every four years’ worth of work.

Cynics would argue that, while the old stipend may have been obscene, salary should be based on performance and revenue generation. The above record of the women in world championship play satisfies the first part of that argument. Nevertheless, it is true that the team does not garner the attention that the men’s team does, let alone bring in similar television revenue. That said, to justify a wage gap based on a revenue differential is problematic for more than reasons of equality. The argument is ultinately specious because it fails to account for the notion of investment.

Clearly, the team’s performance is outstanding, but that can only be maintained by cultivating a sustainable pipeline of talent, and growing the game so new fans and participants become associated with the sport. Without adequate financial support, including incentives to play the game professionally, the viability and profitability of the sport is jeopardized. US Hockey therefore has to give something to get something.

Undoubtedly, traditional sports fans who prefer that athletes’ personal interests be placed aside in favor of the name on the front of the jersey will criticize what took place. That is unfortunate in light of the courageous choice to prioritize personal sacrifice in favor of equality. The stakes athletically were high: lose the opportunity to compete in the world championships, defend the gold, and risk future Olympic participation. The overall growth of the sport would have also been stunted if the US did not field a team, or used sub par replacement players. Yet in the plight of female workers to gain pay equity throughout the country, the societal implications of the US women’s strike far exceed the gains that can be made on the ice. And for the record, the alleged distraction of recent events did not keep the team from successfully defending the gold medal.

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