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MLB’s labor dispute is over. MLB’s labor dispute will never end.

by | Mar 11, 2022 | Labor, News, Opinion, Spotlight

The following is from Marc Normandin’s ongoing project “Baseball coverage, featuring leftism” where he primarily discusses baseball, but other sports, too, with a focus on labor through a leftist lens. You can check out his work and sign up for his newsletter at marcnormandin.com. Visit Marc’s Patreon to become a supporter and help him continue to write articles like this one.

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but labor peace is a lie. A new collective bargaining agreement shouldn’t be considered the dawn of an era of peace, but more like a temporary ceasefire, until the next escalation brings the two sides to full-blown conflict once more. That’s not the kind of verbiage you’ll hear from either side — MLB because, like any monopolistic power, likes to pretend they aren’t the aggressors, and the Players Association because they have to live side-by-side with those aggressors until the next time. If you never take a step back, and are always publicly fighting, you’ll simply fatigue fans and the media who stir them up. Given that Thursday’s new CBA marks the end of a dispute that began essentially the moment MLB started jumping through the loopholes of the previous agreement, well… it’s time to quietly plan for 2027, and save the loud parts for later.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Players Association won a stunning victory with the new agreement, but considering they were fighting from underneath the entire time — the damage from the 2011 and 2016 CBAs, especially, had them coming into this bout far from at their best — reaching a time-limit draw with the league is still somewhat remarkable. What matters now — or, later, really — is what happens in 2027.

Hey, don’t roll your eyes at me, I already made the ceasefire analogy and dropped “labor peace is a lie” to prep you for this moment. If you’re reading this, you should know the score by now. As I got into over at Baseball Prospectus this morning — it’s free to read! — even wins like the pre-arbitration labor pool aren’t quite where they need to be. Simply getting them to exist was the victory in this first attempt, but in 2027, when the brand new CBA is as old as the one it just replaced, it’ll be time to hammer on the fact that a flat $50 million pool that doesn’t increase in any way for five years simply isn’t doing the job it was meant to do, at least from the players’ point of view. 

The league minimum, too, will need to see another significant increase, and the players can’t buy any argument from the league about how the 2022 deal already gave them the second-largest percentage increase ever to go along with the largest straight dollar amount increase in minimum history. Those were significant gains, yes, but they were also just a way to play catch up on a salary that had, due to the nature of negotiating from precedent instead of being scaled to revenues and growth, fallen around $300,000 behind where it should have been. When the salary itself maxed out at $570,500 in the previous CBA, $300,000 is an absurd missing chunk of change to consider.

I could go all the way down the line, but we don’t need to: what matters is understanding all of this on a conceptual level, and what needs to be done in order to ensure that this isn’t a one-time interruption to MLB’s plan of slowly stripping away all of the union’s rights and bargaining power. One thing that needs to occur is to make sure that all the players are on the same page next time, and fully understand the gravity of what it means to stand up against the league, and why they’re doing it.

This is not meant to imply that the players were not unified or full of solidarity or aware of the meaning of what they were up against: they withstood a lockout for nearly 100 days, their first major labor action that had games removed from the schedule not because of a virulent pandemic, but because of their bosses. And this despite many players not knowing where they would be living or playing or how much they would be making in 2022. It was a commendable defense!

I am a little concerned, though, about how all of this concluded. The executive board voted 8-0 against the offer that would eventually usher in a new CBA: the broader membership, by way of player representatives polling their teammates, would go against the board’s recommendation and vote to approve it 24-6. There is a disconnect there, between those who were in the negotiating room and those outside of it, and from where I sit, it is difficult to know just what it was. We’re talking about hyper competitive people, yes, but we’re also talking about a group that has been conditioned to care about taking the field as the most important thing there is. It’s not hard to imagine that those concerned about securing the best possible future for the next generation of players were outvoted by those who felt that this was as good as it’s going to get, come on, let’s play ball before we don’t have a full 162 to play.

This is conjecture in this specific instance, sure, but historically, cracks appear in the union between those with short-term vision and those with long-term vision, those who already got theirs and those who have yet to secure their bag. And hell, it’s not like this is a problem specific to the PA. How do you think two-tier unions came to be in the first place? Where do you think MLB’s owners got the idea to try to split the PA’s membership in the same way? Maybe I’m reading into this too much, or maybe I’m remembering moments like in 1985, when the PA’s executives kept telling the players they were making a significant mistake by shifting arbitration eligibility from two years of service to three —a change that had catastrophic results, the effects of which are still being felt in the present — or in 1990, when former executive director Marvin Miller had to show up to give Donald Fehr’s PA a major pep talk about how the most important things are solidarity and ensuring a bright future for the union members to come, because the membership had broadly forgotten this as their dispute with the owners dragged on and the desire to maybe just give in to get back to business as usual grew stronger.

If there is no problem, well, great. I can’t help but feel that more work needs to be done to keep the broader membership engaged, though, so that the 2022 CBA doesn’t become a one-off undone by the union of 2027, so that fans and media aren’t left to wonder what went on there with this turnabout, and the reasons behind it. The good news is that the next generation of minor-league players, the ones who will replace the retiring players and those who simply can’t find employment any longer over the next five years, are going to be more used to viewing MLB as the opposition: one that can be fought against, thanks to the battles being waged in MiLB to secure housing, meals, and better pay. And maybe being hardened in those battles that have no end will keep the PA prepared for the next engagement in their ongoing fight, and in a way that has those in the bargaining room and those waiting to hear about what’s going on in there more on the same page.

Marc Normandin

Marc Normandin currently writes on baseball’s labor issues and more at marcnormandin.com, as well as on classic video games at Retro XP, both of which you can read for free but support through his Patreon. He is also one of the founding members of the worker-owned and reader-funded Publication To Be Named Later.

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