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Baseball’s Labor War: Back & Forth But Going Nowhere

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MLB made another proposal to the Player’s Association. Compromise continues to be too much to ask and a deadline looms. What are the owners doing and why?

New York Mets v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The MLB draft gave baseball fans a moment’s reprieve from the ongoing labor negotiations that have consumed the summer. The soul-sucking bickering was back in full force on Friday when baseball made another proposal to the Player’s Association.

Karl Ravech reported that MLB was set to offer a 70-game season that would pay players 80-85% of their already prorated salaries. The offer includes a playoff pool bonus. This represents a slight step forward for the owners toward the players but is still far short of the full pay-for-play salaries that the players are demanding.

The player’s response was predictable. Jack Flaherty, who has remained outspoken during the negotiation process, had this to say:

And this:

He’s a man of few words.

Will we get to see him pitch again this season?

The answer remains yes. With the weekend deadline for the players, time is running out. The more time that passes without an agreement, the closer baseball gets to the owners simply implementing a 48-game season.

I’ve come to the conclusion that’s what the owners planned all along. Multiple reports indicate that the owners believe they have lost financial ground to the players over the last few Collective Bargaining Agreements. They have the opportunity to take some ground back and they’re going for it.

It turns out that the historic sacrifice made by the players in March at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis will likely be their undoing.

In the March agreement, the players agreed not to sue the owners for lost salary during the shutdown in exchange for a full season of service time if the season was canceled. It was a rare financial concession from the players motivated primarily by altruism in a global pandemic.

The owners are now set to capitalize on that compromise. The March agreement gives MLB the ability to resume play at any length of season for full prorated salaries. This fact is not disputed by the players.

It’s become clear that MLB owners have set aside a certain pool of money that they are willing to budget for player salaries. That amount – which is likely in the range of $1.2 billion – would cover around 50 games.

The goal of the owners is to have enough of a season to validate the playoffs, where MLB is set to make a giant chunk of cash. The owners are willing to compromise total games played but not the money pool. If players want to play more than 48 games this season, they can! But the money will be the same.

What options do the players have to combat this? Answer: None.

That’s the heart of the issue. The owners have the players by the proverbial throat. Why? I offer three points to explain what is happening, why it’s happening, and what will happen from here.

1. The Player’s Association agreed to this.

When the PA agreed to the deal in March they inadvertently gave the owners full control over their salaries for the season. Allowing the league to set game totals also allowed the league to determine total pay.

This would not have been a problem if the virus was temporary and the game was able to resume with fans in the stands. Perhaps that is the scenario that the PA imagined. If so, they were foolish and short-sighted. Even in March, the most likely scenario was for the game to resume with limited or no fan attendance for most of the season. The PA either didn’t recognize the severity of the virus or they didn’t believe the owners would ever do what they’re doing.

They did agree to allow what is happening to happen, however, and by giving the owners this level of control, the players accidentally invited the owners to take that level of control.

2. All the players can do in response (for now) is file a grievance.

The players are upset, believing that MLB is limiting the number of games played this season in an intentional effort to suppress salaries. That’s almost certainly true. While the union can’t sue for salary lost due to canceled games, the union can file a grievance claiming that MLB did not negotiate total games played in good faith.

Such a claim, though, would be almost impossible to prove and the owners have an air-tight defense: the health and safety of their employees.

Most states and local municipalities still have restrictions on large gatherings. The virus has not gone away and in some baseball cities, it is only getting worse. Baseball has talked with medical experts. They have sought the advice of local and federal health officials. These experts have advised MLB to keep their season as short as possible and to get the playoffs over as quickly as they can before a second wave of the virus hits in the fall.

Baseball can and will claim that their current course of action is done with player safety as their foremost concern.

Players can angry-Tweet about baseball limiting games to limit salary all day, but all MLB has to do is say, “we abided by the language of our previously negotiated agreement and closely followed the advice of medical experts during a global pandemic.”

I am no lawyer, but that seems like it will hold up.

It’s completely disingenuous but it’s defensible and evidenced. The owners planned this.

3. Is all this worth it to save $100-200M for an industry worth $4B or more annually?

What’s the long-term impact of all of this? The players may refuse to play a 48-game season. That seems unlikely and it would put them in some legal hot water. Instead, I believe that once the league implements its shortened season, the players will see the season out and save their fight for the fall.

They likely will file a grievance against the owners if for no other reason than to begin documenting a consistent effort by the owners to suppress player salaries.

Then, their focus will turn toward the next CBA, which is set to expire after the 2021 season. The union has made a concerted effort to batten down the hatches. If they can keep that unity, they can challenge the owners’ growing power with the legitimate threat of a strike.

Having already lost billions of dollars this season in revenue, and likely playing the 2021 season in a recession, the owners are not positioned quite as strongly as some might believe. Likewise, I’m probably overestimating the strength of the player’s unity and underestimating their willingness to use an extreme labor strategy to gain a few concessions after already losing at least 60% of their salaries during this current season.

Regardless, MLB still feels it’s worth it to save a few $100M in salaries right now in exchange for two years of labor angst, a possible strike, the erosion of fan sentiment, and the loss of all trust between players and the union.

I feel like I can explain what they are doing from a rational standpoint. I am having a great deal of trouble explaining why they are doing it. I cannot see how this ill-advised and highly punitive course of action against players and (indirectly the fans) would benefit the owners and the profitability of the game passed this immediate crisis.

I certainly cannot and will not endorse what they’re doing.

It’s in the owner’s rights and it’s going to save them money right now. But the damage being done to the sport, the players, and the fans is irrecoverable.

Honestly? I wonder if the owners feel like they can win one over the players and they’re just going for it, regardless of the future.

Hmmm… I kind of wish more of them would take that attitude toward the play on the field.