Marty Walsh to leave USDOL for hockey players association

What does that mean for hockey?

The news that the National Hockey League Players Association will be hiring U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh as its Executive Director is interesting. What does his hiring mean for the NHLPA?

Secretary Walsh will be replacing Don Fehr, perhaps the most effective players' union leader in the history of sports. Mr. Fehr has been fighting on behalf of athletes for nearly 50 years. While he was an associate at a Kansas City law firm in the mid-1970s, Mr. Fehr helped represent the Major League Baseball Players Association in the Andy Messersmith/Dave McNally arbitrations and related federal litigation that led to the introduction of free agency into baseball.

In 1977, Mr. Fehr joined the MLB Players Association, where he stayed until 2009, serving as Executive Director for the last 24 years. Although he was villainized by club owners and some fans, Mr. Fehr was highly effective in his role. The union won victories against the clubs after they had engaged in collusion in the 1980s, resisted the league’s efforts to impose a salary cap, and won legal battles that helped end the 1994-95 strike. For his contributions to the business of baseball, Mr. Fehr deserves consideration for the Hall of Fame. But I won’t hold my breath -- it took until 2020 for his legendary predecessor Marvin Miller to be inducted.

After leaving the baseball players' association, Mr. Fehr went on to hockey, where he has led the NHL Players Association for the past 12 years. His leadership provided a steady and experienced hand to a union with a history of scandals and ineffective leaders.

Will Secretary Walsh be able to do the same? He is not an attorney, but he had two decades of experience as a member and leader of trade unions before becoming mayor of Boston and then Secretary of Labor. At the same time, his tone and approach are certainly different from those of Mr. Fehr. Mr. Fehr is known as quick-witted and pugnacious while Secretary Walsh is an affable dealmaker.

The current collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the players' association runs through the 2025-26 season, giving Secretary Walsh plenty of time to learn on the job. But then it will be interesting to see the tone of the labor negotiations. This past fall, Secretary Walsh helped broker a deal between freight unions and rail companies that threatened to bring much of national commerce to a halt. But the deal required legislation that some of the unions opposed, which hurt Mr. Walsh's reputation in the labor community.

In particular, I wonder whether we might see a greater role for attorney Jeffrey Kessler and his legal team. Mr. Kessler has worked with every players' union, although most of his work has been with the players' associations for the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, places where Mr. Fehr did not work. Attorney Kessler helped to mastermind the union disclaimer/decertification strategy in labor negotiations that has been used by the NFL and NBA players' associations. Mr. Fehr appears to disfavor this strategy, as the baseball and hockey players' associations have never pursued it.

With Mr. Fehr's departure, the NHL players' association may have to reassert its willingness to drive a hard bargain. No one sends that message better than Mr. Kessler.

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
Continue Reading



Back to Page