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US: women ice hockey players’ strike threat wins living wage

On 15 March, a group of women in the US announced a strike that became headline news across the country.
This was no ordinary strike threat. No ordinary workplace. Feeling their talks for equal pay were going nowhere, the US women’s national hockey team played their strongest hand.
Just one week before the World Championships in Michigan, the title holders – and tournament favourites – pledged not to show up to the tournament they have never won on home ice.
Demanding a living wage and the same perks provided to the men’s national team – the women were flown economy while the men flew business class; men were able to take guests to competitions free of charge; women had to bunk together – they faced a hardened response from USA Hockey, the sport’s governing body.
USA Hockey embarked on a scab recruitment attempt. From targeting players as young as 16 to trying to coax others out of retirement, they did all they could to undermine the strike.
Yet they hadn’t banked on the outpouring of support that would follow. It was no surprise to the players, however, who knew the strong bond of solidarity between women athletes would hold firm.
The men’s team hinted at a strike themselves if the women’s demands weren’t met. Unions from the National Hockey League, National [American] Football League, National Basketball League and Major League Baseball spoke out in favour of the action, united in sporting respect. Sixteen US senators voiced their support.
After gruelling ten-hour talks, and just three days before the tournament and the strike were due to start, agreement was reached. But despite USA Hockey’s statements, this was far from a compromise.
Until the dispute was resolved, USA Hockey only paid the women players for training leading into the Olympics – $6,000 for a six-month period.
The new four-year deal will instead see the women earn about $70,000 a year, with the chance for that to rise above $100,000 if they scoop Olympic gold.
All the women will receive a base salary of $4,000 a month before any bonuses. On top of that they will now receive the same $50 daily allowance as the men, who were taking home 210% more than the women.
And the governing body has committed to establishing a committee aimed at improving the marketing of women’s hockey, and promised to address the woefully inadequate fundraising for girls’ youth teams – a vital protection of the future of women’s hockey by the sport’s top stars.
Team captain Meghan Duggan said: “Our sport is the big winner today. We stood up for what we thought was right and USA Hockey’s leadership listened. In the end, both sides came together.
“I’m proud of my teammates and can’t thank everyone who supported us enough. It’s time now to turn the page. We can’t wait to play in the World Championship later this week in front of our fans as we try and defend our gold medal.”
Forward Hilary Knight, one of the strike’s leading figures, added: “The negotiation process took a toll. But we knew there would be a bond that would be unbreakable.
“We set a historic landmark for the next generation. [What we wanted was] to build off that, to come in with momentum, and then win our next world championship.”
Ten days later, Knight exhilaratingly scored the extra-time goal that saw the US beat arch-rivals Canada to win the World Championship.
It may have been the fourth time in a row the US has beaten Canada to the World title, and the first time at home. But it was the coupling with the political win that made this victory mean more than any that have come before.
Two days before that historic win, the US women’s national football team reached agreement with US Soccer that – while full details weren’t disclosed – saw similar demands met.
After an even longer-running dispute that saw the right to strike denied by a district judge last year, a four-year deal was signed that is said to include: increased pay – the New York Times has said base pay will be boosted by 30%; increased bonuses; improvement in travel and hotel benefits; a daily allowance equal to the men’s team; financial support for pregnant players and those adopting; and, crucially, some control of licensing and sponsorship.
Some argue against pay equality for sportswomen on the basis that women’s sport generates less income. This is well and truly put to bed by the success of the US women’s national soccer team (as well as the financial discrepancies faced by legends like Serena Williams).
In 2015, the US women’s team won the World Cup and generated $20 million more than the men’s, who finished 15th in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The women earnt four times less in the process.
In addition, the women’s World Cup final against Japan was the most watched soccer game – men’s or women’s – in US history, with 25.4 million tuning in.
And this growth is continuing. While the men’s team is expect to run at a deficit in 2017, a budget report from the US Soccer Federation projects that the women will bring in $17 million, including a $5 million surplus.
The issue isn’t going away with these penned deals either. Five players on the women’s team – Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn – have an outstanding complaint against US Soccer before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has yet to be resolved.
And despite the profile of the national hockey team’s action, the University of North Dakota recently announced the cutting of their women’s hockey team effective immediately.
While serial misogynist Trump sits in the White House signing away international financial aid for abortion rights groups, and women protest draconian abortion restrictions in states across the country, these sportswomen are playing a vital role in showing just how powerful strike action and organised struggle can be in the fight for equality.
No doubt sportswomen will continue to use their strength to fight back, and will be emboldened to take action by the successes of the hockey and soccer teams’ fight for sporting financial equality. Hopefully women workers will be similarly inspired in the workplace too.
Suzanne Wrack