MLB's Labor Situation More Comically Desperate Than Ever

This won't end well.
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With a month left before spring training, dozens of baseball’s free agents remain unsigned in what has been – Giancarlo Stanton’s trade to the Yankees aside – one of the dullest offseasons in the history of the sport. While that did not change this week, the baseball world did get better perspective on an important issue facing the sport: the continued leadership void at what once was the model union in professional sports, and one of the beacons of the organized labor movement in general.

MrMetMLBPA

Stories from Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic on negotiations over in-game rules changes, and from Jeff Passan at Yahoo Sports on baseball’s evolving economic system, paint different corners of the same picture. The Major League Baseball Players Association does not have the same gumption that it once did to extract every possible concession it can get from management.

In a way, it’s understandable. Major League Baseball players have it pretty good, with a minimum salary of more than half a million dollars and steep wage increases for players with three or more years of experience. The benefits and work conditions, a recent point of emphasis for the union, also are quite good.

While, as Craig Calcaterra points out at NBC Sports, it’s not fair to assume that just because union leader Tony Clark is a former player and not a labor lawyer, that the union doesn’t have a team of lawyers, there is an important distinction to be drawn. Clark, as the leader of the union, appears to look more at the present for players, rather than mixing current issues with the long game.

When Rob Manfred pushes through rule changes designed to speed up the pace of the game, it’s not just about those rule changes. It’s about seeing how the union will react, how much leeway it will give to management to implement its own plans, and how hard the owners can push on other issues going forward. It’s a test of priorities, and being three years out from the next round of collective bargaining, what the union does not seem to realize is that it is fine to play hardball on everything.

The owners want pitch clocks? Extract a concession. The owners want to change the rules on mound visits? Extract a concession. Outright rejection of a proposal, when management has the right to act unilaterally, is not the way to go, and even if the union agrees with something, the response to an ownership idea should generally be, “Okay, but we’ve got a few tweaks and other ideas.” You know, negotiating, an area where Clark has previously been outflanked by Mr. Met.

It is not an easy future ahead for the players, as front offices generally have gotten wise to the perils of free agency, in which payment is rendered more for past performance than future potential. The leading example of this is Albert Pujols, a three-time MVP with the Cardinals who signed with the Angels after the 2011 season. Pujols never has approached what he did in St. Louis since moving west, but his salary goes up every year, culminating in a $30 million payday in 2021. Pujols was below replacement level in 2017.

Fixing the system to get more money for younger players who contribute more, while still ensuring that veteran players are taken care of in their decline years, will not be an easy task, but it’s not impossible. Mike Axisa outlined a solid set of ideas at CBS Sports, but changing the system in a way that doesn’t wind up as a cash grab for the owners is a big challenge.

One of the things that hockey players talked about a lot after former baseball union chief Don Fehr joined them was that they became a lot more aware of labor issues and the reasons behind various things the union might want to do that could seem counterintuitive or out of line with their immediate thinking. Clark may have a skilled team of negotiators, but the institutional memory of the MLBPA about fighting tooth and nail for everything is vanishing. The danger that the players face is that the owners never need a reminder, because their focus is always singular: the most money they can get. Everything the union does that isn’t a fight for a bigger piece of the pie is another opportunity for the owners to get more of what they want.

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