Weingarten Rights, the MLBPA, and the Houston Astros

Labor Organizing
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New Orleans         We don’t have a major league baseball team in New Orleans.  Our closest team is a bit more than five hours away in Houston.  In the vast majority of the last several decades, we would drive over with the kids so that they could watch one or two Astros games during the summer and hang out with friends and colleagues in the city.  We weathered through a lot of rough seasons with Bagwell and Biggio in the National League. We were there to see Nolan Ryan whiff the Cardinals’ Mark McGuire during his run for the record.  I got to see the seventh game of the 1967 World Series when the Boston Red Sox lost to the Cardinals.  For Christmas, my son, Chaco, got a ticket to see the second game in the 2019 series with the Nationals, where they were walloped.  We wear our Astros hats from time to time.

We’re not happy about this whole sign-stealing, garbage can banging scandal or the way the team, and even the players, have handled it.  At the same time, I’m even unhappier about the lame-brained way that some pundits and others have tried to blame the union, as they have called for punishment for the players.  It once again proves how lazy and uninformed ESPN and hundreds of sports writers are about the basic rights of worker and responsibilities of unions, as they jump to the wrong conclusions and let their bias taint the tale.

The story goes that once the Commissioner’s office heard a whistleblower singing on the wire about sign-stealing, his office contacted the union, the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) and asked to interview the players with the promise that there would be no discipline.  Haters bang these drums!

Sorry, but the Commissioner had no choice, but to make that offer, if he wanted to do an investigation of the rumor, and the union handled it correctly down to the letter, because both parties were following the time-honored requirements involved in Weingarten rights, named after the Supreme Court case that memorialized them.  In fact, the rights originated in Houston after a fashion as well, since that was the headquarters of the former Weingarten supermarket chain which dominated the area many decades ago and where the case originated with the company decided to fire a worker after refusing to allow his representative in the discussion.

Under Weingarten rights, when an employer wants to interview a worker in a situation that might lead to discipline, the worker has the right to be represented by their representative in a unionized setting or by another worker or advocate in a non-union workplace.  The employer can then either agree to such a demand or impose discipline without interviewing the worker.  The employer is barred from interviewing the worker without the union’s presence and representation, after a request is made for such representation, and then meting out discipline.  That’s the law.  Breaching the law would lead to a quick 8(a)3 charge under the NLRB, and invariably the discipline or termination would be voided based on the violation of Weingarten rights.

In this case, the Commissioner’s office was fishing.  If they wanted to interview Astros’ players and get to the heart of this, they had to promise that the interviews would not produce discipline in order to conduct these conversations without union or legal representatives being present during the interviews.  Speaking as a union representative, if a steward, or player’s representative as they call them in the MLBPA, had been present they would not have been allowed to actively participate, but they would have categorically advised the player they represented to button up their lips because of the likelihood of discipline, which might have been extreme.

Sorry, pundits and talking heads, and even fans, players are not just uniformed clowns for your entertainment running around on the field with bats and gloves.  They are workers, and they have the rights that the United States Supreme Court has given to them and all other American workers.  Don’t blame the union either.  Weingarten rights are workers’ rights 101.  Every union rep learns them in their first days on the job in any real union.  If the MLBPA had taken any other position than they one they took, any player could have filed a DFR charge or “duty of fair representation” charge at the NLRB and made the union culpable for part of their fines or discipline potentially.

We’ll join all of you in calling for better scrutiny of sign stealing and a more heartfelt mea culpa from the Astros from top to bottom, but we’re never going to join the hanging party that is trying to bulldoze over workers’ rights and union responsibilities.  We’re going to stay fans of the Astros.  They know better, and they’ll do better.  We’re also going to continue to be fans of the union and the fact that the players have rights and are working hard for their money.