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The NHL vs. Wal-Mart vs. Congress (vs. Progress)

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It has taken a while, but I have become quite disgusted with the NHL owners and players. The owners give greed a bad name, but the players -- more destructively -- give unions a bad name. Here are a bunch of guys doing what they love, what they'd probably be doing in their spare time for fun, now making more a year than your average fan would make in a decade, demanding more. Not that the owners are princes, or any kind of benign dictator. They certainly make more than the players. The way to resolve this, as far as I'm concerned, is to have the union stay pretty much where it is and have the players demand that the owners pay the people who work for them, the concessionaires and janitors and security people who keep their places running. These are the folks who could use the money. The owners and players are just involved in a nationally covered pissing contest that will soon be a longer running enterprise than the season.

I was raised in a union house, I have worked as a union agitator, and I am currently a member of yet another union. And in a way, the NHL conflict is a classic union dispute: the owners make their fortunes off the backs of the players. It's the scale of the thing that upsets me. Neither the players, nor the union members are hurting, they just want to prove who has the bigger cojones, and in the end they risk losing it all because they alienate the good will of their bread and butter -- the working class folks who fill the seats and watch them on cable.

Some of those folks work for Wal-Mart, and if there were ever a union cause worth supporting, on so many levels, the Wal-Mart employees is that crusade. Of course, this is difficult for anyone on the outside: If you boycott Wal-Mart (an impossible task in some locales), the workers eventually lose anyway, because the stores just fire them. Yet, for them to work for the limited wages and for no benefits at what is often the only game in town brings back the era of the company store, another day older and deeper in debt.

And over the past four years, similar things have happened in DC. For the benefit of the two percent of who can afford to hire lobbyists, the House of Representatives continues to prove that the opposite of progress is Congress. While people who work for Wal-Mart (and millions of other Americans, and myself for that matter) remain under-employed, a paycheck away from further disaster (most are in trouble already), Congress engages in a partisan pissing contest that makes the NHL and the Owners look like kids at camp. With the "fiscal cliff" making the average person feel a bit like Thelma and Louise without the elation (or perhaps Wile E. Coyote), DC has dug in its heels.

The question remains: What do they seek? As Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton in their excellent book on the art of negotiating, Getting To Yes, position and posturing often get in the way of what the negotiation is really about: what are the opposing sides' interests? It would seem to me that ending the lockout would serve the NHL's and players' interests, listening to their constituents and not the lobbyists would ultimately end the standoff on Capitol Hill, and Wal-Mart would be best served by pumping some of their financial capital into their human capital -- no one likes grumpy retail workers, and frankly some of the people who've served me on my rare forays into Wal-Mart were some of the best retail workers I have encountered. How much better would they be if they and their families had health benefits and a living wage?

While it is in no one's interest to go over the cliff (none of us can defy gravity -- even briefly -- like Wile E. Coyote), and Congress will find a way to prevent that (cue Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles as Governor Lepetomane to his cabinet: "Gentlemen, we must protect our phony-baloney jobs!") can anyone suggest a way to avoid four more years of pissing contests and partisan intransigence? Maybe someone should hire Fisher, Ury and Patton as lobbyists.