MLB’s Labour Peace Is Coming to an End

An uneasy detente has been in place between the MLB and MLBPA for nearly thirty years. That’s going to change by 2021.

Beyond the horizon, there is a fight brewing between Major League Baseball and the players association as the countdown to contract negotiations 2021 begins.

The labor tensions between the two have grown over the past year to a dangerous level, and battle lines have been clearly drawn.

On one side stands former MLB player Tony Clark now serving as executive director of the MLBPA, with an ear to the needs of players and nothing more — creating a separate set of internal union issues.

On the other, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, a shrewd, bottom-line businessman looking to increase league revenues, while focusing on how the outside world views his league — introducing pace of play rules, reducing commercial break times, limiting pitcher’s mound visits, and advocating for expansion teams.

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The coming fight will focus on two specific economic issues — free agency and revenue sharing.

Anticipating the two will likely butt heads during each round of negotiations is too easy; they’ve been doing since last year’s slow offseason free agent marketplace.

“What the players saw last offseason is that their free agency rights are under direct attack, and those rights have been a bedrock of our economic system. If that’s the case, we’re going to have difficult decisions to make,” said Clark, before the Baseball Writers Association of America. Going even further to hint at possible work stoppages after the current CBA expires, after the league’s “direct attack” of players rights.

When asked about the slow offseason marketplace, immediately after Clark’s meeting, Manfred claimed the free agent market reflected club choices on the merits of available players.

‘Direct attack’ connotes some sort of purposeful behavior,” he said. “The only purposeful behavior that took place in the labor market last year was that our clubs carefully analyzed the available players and made individual decisions on what those players were worth. … That’s how markets operate”

At the start of spring training ’18, over 100 free agents were still jobless, and it seemed free agency had come to a standstill, leading Clark to tip-toe around the term “collusion” while raising questions.

Ah…now there’s a term that has been popping up daily thanks to Donald J. Trump.

Collusion is defined by Barron’s Law Dictionary as: “the making of an agreement with another for the purposes of perpetrating a fraud, or engaging in illegal activity, or in legal activity while having an illegal end in mind.”

In baseball, it is defined as acting in “concert.”

Under the MLB-MLBPA’s CBA it reads: “Players shall not act in concert with other Players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs.”

Surprisingly, the anti-collusion clause in every CBA — including the first in 1968 — was the team owners’ idea.

Two seasons before the first CBA was signed, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale organized and sat out spring training. They fought for a joint three-year, $1 million contract, split down the middle for them, to stop Dodgers owners from pitting them against each other during negotiations.

The MLBPA agreed to the “anti-collusion” request, only if it also barred owners from colluding against the players. Both sides agreed.

At the time free agency was a pipe dream and owners only had to worry about competing against each other — players had no power and those fights were never much trouble for them.

That changed with the Seitz arbitration decision in ’75, which saw Major League Baseball players become free agents after playing one year for their team without a contract, eliminating baseball’s reserve clause.

The arbitration ruling was issued after grievances were filed by Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. But the free agency war started when St. Louis Cardinal Curt Flood refused to be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies after the ’69 season.

Flood challenged the reserve clause and baseball’s antitrust exemption established by Federal Baseball Club v. National League. Though the Supreme Court ruled in baseball’s favor 5–3, it admitted that the antitrust exemptions were shaky at best — that small revelation helped Seitz reach his decision.

“The grievances of Messersmith and McNally are sustained. There is no contractual bond between these players and the Los Angeles and the Montreal clubs, respectively,” wrote Seitz in his decision. “Absent such a contract, their clubs had no right or power, under the Basic Agreement, the Uniform Player Contract or the Major League Rules to reserve their services for their exclusive use for any period beyond the renewal year in the contracts which these players had heretofore signed with their clubs.”

With free agency introduced into baseball’s economic world, it made sense that clubs and owners would act in “concert” to strip power from players and their union.

First, they appealed Seitz’s ruling, Kansas City Royals v. MLBPA, only to have the court side with players, then they blatantly colluded on three occasions: 1985, 1986 and 1987. Nicknamed Collusion I, II and III, arbitrators sided with the players in each case before them.

A collusion grievance has yet to be filed this season, but players, agents and the league are taking notes just in case — history tends to repeat itself.

The other issue in dispute: MLB’s revenue sharing.

The MLBPA filed a grievance against four teamsthe A’s, Marlins, Pirates and Rays — in February arguing the teams had “failed to comply with rules of how they spend their revenue sharing money.”

Under the MLB-MLBPA’s CBA teams are “required to spend their revenue-sharing money to improve the infield product, not necessarily on major-league payroll.”

A month earlier, the MLBPA notified Commissioner Manfred that it wanted to make sure the Marlins and Pirates were not violating the revenue-sharing agreement — both teams pared down their payroll and were roster-stripping.

“We have raised our concerns regarding both Miami and Pittsburgh with the Commissioner, as is the protocol under the collective bargaining agreement and its Revenue Sharing provisions,’’ said MLBPA spokesperson Greg Bouris in a statement. “We are waiting to have further dialogue and that will dictate our next steps.”

The league responded with a short, terse statement: “We have received the grievance and believe it has no merit.”

Pirates president Frank Coonelly went as far as calling the grievance “patently baseless.” While Commissioner Manfred suggested that the union broke from the usual grievance process for “publicity reasons.”

“Literally, they (MLBPA) want to sit down to talk with clubs about what decisions they made. I don’t know why you would file a grievance and say they made inappropriate decisions without first learning why they made those decisions,” he said.

The grievance has yet to be resolved, but it’s filing highlighted some of the MLBPA’s internal issues, pushing Clark to take a firmer stance.

It’s only natural that MLB players are upset by the free agency fiasco and violations of revenue-sharing. Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reported some players are pushing to remove Clark as executive director and question his ability to stand up to ownership given the outcomes of the 2016 negotiations.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

During those negotiations, it seemed player amenities took priority over increases to the luxury-tax and players baseline salary.

The union also shot itself in the foot by negotiating away rights of future members by instituting a draft spending cap and again when limiting international bonuses.

The MLBPA is not united as it once was. Before Marvin Miller, the union’s first executive director, retired, he reminded players “the future effectiveness of the union was at stake if it could not remain unified on and off the field.”

Hope is never lost though.

And with the barrage of attacks from the league and owners, it’s likely the players will unite, and Clark will start playing offense, not defense.

Those grievances and public statements are not about media airtime, it’s about the union’s ability to come out on top in ’21 with a united front.

So, will there be a strike?

While both sides have been careful to avoid the terms strike and lockout, you only need to read between the lines and look back at the ’94-’95 strike to see it’s a real possibility.

Mirror Images

Aug. 12, 1994, the MLBPA went out on strike.

It lasted 232 days, cancelled over 900 games — including the entire ’94 postseason and World Series, and ended Michael Jordan’s baseball experiment.

The issues faced were not new.

After winning free agency, owners sought ways of limiting free agency and restricting salary growth. Then acting commissioner Bud Selig led the owners on a crusade to cap players salary in their revenue-sharing proposals.

Team owners approved a new revenue-sharing plan January 18, 1994, which required the players union’s approval. With the union adamantly opposing any salary cap, the owners amended their league agreement, giving complete power to the commissioner over labor negotiation, and refused any counter-offers by the union that did not include a cap.

Led by union chief Donald Fehr, the players set Aug. 12 as the strike deadline hoping it would give the league time to come to the table and bargain in good faith.

“It doesn’t matter what we do,” Dodgers player representative Orel Hershiser reportedly told the owners in the final negotiating sessions two days before the strike date. “You’re going to get rid of Selig and [lead counsel Richard] Ravitch, get a new negotiating team and you’re going to cave in.”

Players were confident in their ability to stay united.

Their history had shown seven work-stoppage wins against the league. Only this time, the owners were united too.

Early in ’95, after five congressional bills were introduced to end the strike, President Bill Clinton ordered the league and union back to the bargaining table with a federal mediator.

The new contract deadline passed with no agreement, and the league began to schedule games with “scab” players — that was the final straw and history sided with the players once again.

While the public was focused on the strike itself, behind the scenes the National Labor Relations Board found the owners had illegally imposed a salary cap in December ’94 while negotiations were at impasse, and again ruled in the players’ favor by finding merit to their unfair labor practices filed against the league for use of “replacement players,” and sought an injunction for players to return to work under the terms of the expired CBA.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, then a U.S. District Judge, granted the injunction March 31, 1995.

The scabs were tossed out along with the salary cap and baseball resumed April 25, 1995.

A new MLB-MLBPA CBA would not be signed until 1997.

While the impact of the strike is still debated by many — old Montreal Expos fans blame the strike for destroying their team and stellar ’94 season, the strike ushered in an era of uneasy, labor peace, which helped the sport grow.

A peace now threatened by Manfred’s pushing through drastic changes to the game.

Changes that may destroy the very essence of the game.

“Over the last five years, we have seen more changes to the game than in the years prior,” said Clark. “All of that is concerning to the guys, where they don’t want to get to a place where the fans are no longer enjoying it, and not engaging the next generation of fans. That combo platter is very concerning to them.”

A strike now and again, in my opinion, is a good thing for bringing about change in labor relations — H.R. experts may disagree, but I’ll sit down to debate it with them, in good-faith, anytime.

If a strike is called or if owners’ go with a lockout, I’ll be sure to join the players on the picket line.

Will you?

Al Neal
Al Neal
Al Neal is an award-winning columnist at Grandstand Central writing on politics, labor relations, and the general rabble-rousing in professional sports. He spent a decade working in the trade union movement with various locals across the country and currently serves as Dir. of Education and Advocacy for the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society.



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