SBJ/September 10-16, 2012/Labor and Agents

History backs NHLPA’s trust in Steve Fehr

If negotiations between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association for a new labor deal go off the rails, Steve Fehr, the union’s special counsel and younger brother of NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr, could be the guy behind the scenes who gets things back on track.

History shows he’s done it before.

“I have always regarded Steve to be a positive force in our negotiations,” said Rob Manfred, executive vice president of economics and league affairs for Major League Baseball, who has sat across the bargaining table from Fehr multiple times in the last two decades. “He was extremely helpful in getting a deal in ’96, ’02 and ’06.”

Fehr, 60, was hired as special counsel to the NHLPA in 2010 at the same time his brother Don, who ran the MLB Players Association for 25 years, was hired as NHLPA executive director. Although Don Fehr retired from the MLBPA in 2009 prior to taking his new job leading the hockey players’ union, Steve Fehr, who is 3 1/2 years younger than Don, continued to work for the MLBPA as special counsel and still does so today.

Steve Fehr was at the bargaining table representing baseball players last year during the talks that led to the current MLB collective-bargaining agreement. His experience in collective bargaining in baseball goes back as far as 1980, when he first began working as an outside counsel to the MLBPA.

MLBPA Executive Director Michael Weiner said Fehr was heavily involved in each of the most recent rounds of MLB labor talks.

“He is a very knowledgeable, experienced, smart guy,” Weiner said. “He is a good guy to add to the team. When we try to come up with collective ideas, proposals, tactics, counterproposals, Steve is an important mind, an important voice of experience, to have in the room.”

Fehr’s experience extends beyond collective bargaining in sports. He argued before the U.S. Supreme Court for the flight attendants in TWA v. Flight Attendants in 1987. He was a baseball player agent, with MLB pitcher David Cone among his clients. In the 1980s, he was the lead counsel on two of the three collusion cases the MLBPA brought against MLB, resulting in the league agreeing to a $280 million settlement in 1990. He also was co-counsel with Weiner in a contraction grievance against MLB in 2002.

Those who know the brothers say a common first impression of the pair is that Steve Fehr is less imposing, more affable and approachable, and has a better sense of humor. Both Weiner and former MLBPA Chief Operating Officer Gene Orza said that’s largely a result of people not realizing initially that Don Fehr has a distinct sense of humor. “I think until you get to know Don, at least initially, I think Steve is more engaging,” said Orza, who retired in 2011 after more than 25 years with the MLBPA. “Don can appear to people, unless you get to know him, kind of dour.”

Get to know them further, though, and differences do emerge. Weiner called Steve Fehr an avid sports fan, especially for anything to do with Kansas City and his alma mater, the University of Kansas, while Don Fehr’s outside work interests tend to be more intellectual and cerebral.

Manfred also spoke of differences between the two. “Don is an out-front, articulate-the-position, defend-the-position guy, and Steve’s more of a behind-the-scenes, how-can-I-organize-this-to-get-to-a-deal sort of guy.” But Manfred added that the younger Fehr has clearly cut his own path. “Steve’s a qualified professional whether he’s Don’s brother or not,” Manfred said.

Steve Fehr (striped tie, center) arrives with Don Fehr and NHLPA members for labor talks.
Photo by: NEWSCOM
Don Fehr, when asked about the personality differences between him and his brother, said simply, “He has many fewer hard edges than I do.” He added that his brother’s love for and understanding of sports played a large part in Steve Fehr coming on board with the MLBPA. Don Fehr had been hired by his predecessor at the MLBPA, Marvin Miller, and was charged with getting ready for salary arbitration work in the late 1970s. That’s when he got a call from his brother. “He called me up and said, ‘I am a real baseball fan and I understand this stuff and you don’t,’” Don Fehr said.

It’s also helped that it’s been his brother by his side through the years and various legal matters.

“For me, it’s been an extraordinary thing,” Don Fehr said, “because when you are involved in bargaining, it really helps to have somebody who, first of all, is knowledgeable, is observant, knows how the game is played … [but who] knows you inside out and backwards, and perhaps, most importantly, is capable of telling you, probably more often than you want to hear, that you are full of shit.”

According to Manfred, the role Steve Fehr took in the 2002 baseball labor negotiations, when MLB and the players reached a deal just before the players went on strike, was “the most important thing he has done.” Prior to that negotiation, MLB and the MLBPA were unable to reach a labor agreement without a strike or a lockout eight times, going back to 1972.

Manfred noted that MLB and the MLBPA have been able to negotiate two CBAs without a work stoppage since that agreement. Without going into details of those 2002 negotiations, Manfred said Fehr was instrumental in getting a deal done and called him “a calming force” in labor negotiations in general.

Orza agreed with that characterization.

“In the 2002 negotiations, when things got pretty tough and we were close to having some problems that might have resulted in a major fight, Steve stayed pretty calm, cool and collected,” Orza said.

For his part, Steve Fehr would not say specifically what he did during those 2002 talks other than to stay focused on the issues at hand.

“It seemed like there was a chance the parties would blunder into a work stoppage, more because of our history than what was at stake in those negotiations,” Fehr said. “One of the things from which I take the most satisfaction is seeing the baseball [labor] relationship evolve from the worst in sports and one of the worst anywhere to the best in sports and one that is really pretty good overall. I like to think I played a small role in that.”

As for the ongoing negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA, while Don Fehr has the lead role in the talks for the players, Steve Fehr may present an idea or something his brother may have left out, said Mathieu Schneider, the former NHL defenseman who now serves as special assistant to the NHLPA executive director.

Told that baseball officials on both sides of the table said Steve Fehr helped get labor deals done in the past, Schneider said, “That makes total sense.”

“He is a very good complement to Don,” Schneider said. “He is very thoughtful, always surveying the situation, and never says anything unless it is well thought out.”
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