Baseball’s Case Study in Collective Bargaining

Ideas and Issues Sports Unions Workers

            Marble Falls      Well, it’s “take me out to the ballpark” again, not that we’re running out of the house in that direction.  The owners’ lockout is over after 99 days as both parties reached a tentative agreement.  Whether you like baseball or it bores you stiff, and, yes, I realize that some of you like baseball because it is boring, I think it’s worth a good look at the fight between the players association and the owners for other reasons that have to do with opening a window into the intricate and obscure drama of collective bargaining, which is foreign to so many now.

            In the wayback machine of our own memory, there was a day, years ago when unions represented many times more than the six or seven percent of the private sector workforce as they do today, and when strikes were front page news.  Those strikes in auto, steel, tires, coal, aluminum, shipping, and even oil refining, were big news accompanied by speculation about how much they would impact the economy and everyday American life.  People followed the issues, and, especially when there was “pattern” bargaining, some of what unions won would trickle into jobs throughout the industry and economy like health insurance, pensions, and cost-of-living.  Businesses adapted to compete for workers as if there were a diluted form of sectoral bargaining.

            The Players’ Association, baseball’s union, is the strongest in sports, but its agreement is front page on sports’ pages, not business pages, because it doesn’t affect the entire economy, but a sub-economy.  Nonetheless, this 99-day lockout, the second longest in baseball history, shows something about how a strong union with an active membership faces up to billionaires and their hired hands.

            Here goes the short form.  The owners basically wanted to make more money by extending the number of playoff teams, putting advertisements on uniforms, and paying the players less than they were worth, no matter how many seats they were filling in the ballparks.  In fact, under the current commissioner, the average pay per player has dropped about half-a-million bucks since he came on.  The players had a list of issues including pushing the luxury tax up, preventing a hard salary cap, getting more money for early career players, and so forth.  The crashing of these two tectonic plates only settled as the prospect of a shortened season and less money for both players and owners became likely.

            In the final settlement as reported, there was give and take.  Yes, more teams in the playoffs and ads on their backs, but, critically, the players moved the luxury tax up almost along the lines they had proposed.  They got a pile of money, about $50 million to sweeten arbitration awards.  Some younger stars could get seniority credits.  Both sides agreed to some measures to prevent teams tanking before the draft.  They punted until future study the question of how to handle the draft of international players.

            Interestingly, the tentative agreement was rejected 8-0 by the subcommittee that did the most bargaining and had been face-to-jowl with the owners’ reps, but the players’ reps speaking for their members on each team approved the agreement solidly, indicating that the rank-and-file players were definitely ready to play.  The bargaining committee was more strongly weighted to stars with big contracts, and they likely wanted more movement on the luxury tax numbers because that would lead to fatter contracts for stars.  I’m not saying that they didn’t care about lower paid players, because there were huge advances in the coming years in minimum pay levels up to three-quarters of a million, which isn’t a bad rate if you compute the hourly pay.

            The lessons are obvious.  This is a five-year contract, so there’s a price for labor peace, and it’s not cheap.  A strong union can win even against an opponent with unlimited resources.  Unions are not flawless, but voting matters, and the majority has the strongest voice.

            Workers everywhere could play ball this way, if they joined unions collectively, and that’s worth remembering.