The history of the MLBPA is one of fighting war after war with the sport’s franchise owners. Baseball was, of course, famous for its anti-labor policies in the pre-1970’s, with the reserve clause being the most famous example of the extent to which the owners controlled the game and the players pretty much had no choice but to shut up and go along with it. That began to change as the union accrued more influence with the players, but more importantly it changed as the players routinely showed that they were willing and able to stand up to owners when they needed to. That dynamic created multiple work stoppages over the years, but it also laid the groundwork for the period of labor peace that has prevailed after the 1994-95 strike, when the players showed that even drastic action like cancelling the World Series on the part of ownership would not break their union or pressure them into taking the path of least resistance. In the aftermath of the most famous work stoppage in the history of American professional sports, the owners were left with no choice but to accept both the existence of the union and the fact that it was a powerful force that had to be dealt with as a business partner in managing the game.
The other side of that labor coin for most off my memory was the Gene Upshaw led NFLPA. Upshaw, a former player, was every bit a company man in running the union, especially after the union won free agency, though they also accepted a salary cap in the process. Of course, unlike their baseball counterparts, who have seen a string of steadily less acrimonious labor negotiations since the last strike, the NFL players were rewarded for their efforts with a nasty lockout during the last collective bargaining session and now finds themselves on the other end of an unrelenting PR war being waged by the league on everything from player safety to benefits to retired players.
Yet, for some reason, the MLBPA has decided that the NFL players are a model worth emulating. That’s a dangerous turn for the union to take from their own standpoint, and it’s something that fans who don’t want to see another work stoppage anytime soon in baseball should worry about as well. As the most recent round of labor negotiations in all of the major sports should have shown us, labor does not win a place at the table through accommodation, but through fighting. The NFL and NBA owners happily locked their players out because they were emboldened and assumed they could outlast the players, and they had every reason to think that. Baseball owners thought otherwise, because the union had demonstrated time after time that they wouldn’t crack, and would impose heavy costs on the owners as the players opted for solidarity and refused to be pitted against one another.
Now there’s a crack in that foundation, and not a small one either. The union didn’t merely accept slotting as a concession to owners because they had no other choice, many players enthusiastically trumpeted the new rules as ensuring that money would flow to the major leaguers who have “earned” it instead of the future members being drafted. That sort of player vs. player acrimony is new to the baseball union, and is somewhat more galling since quite a few non-unionized minor leaguers supported their big league brethren by refusing to report to Spring Training or be used as replacement players in 1995. What’s more, the players didn’t even win any major concessions from the owners, and with the luxury tax threshold staying static for years to come (and with increasing fees) while the minimum salary grows at roughly the rate of inflation, it would appear that the players should expect to get a smaller slice of the industry’s revenues between now and the next CBA negotiation.
In other words, the stage is set for another nasty labor dispute when the current CBA expires.The players will likely want more concessions from ownership after giving up so much in the last round of bargaining but, emboldened by a win the previous go-round and facing a union that has gone soft after ~20 years of relative labor peace, the owners aren’t likely to give in without a fight. Not that you can blame them: if the MLBPA wants to be more like the NFLPA, the owners might as well reap the same benefit that their football counterparts have as well.