How MLB players’ threat to miss games delivered union its labor win

·6 min read

NEW YORK — MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, say what you will about him, understands labor negotiations. Labor relations, less so — a fact that’s so hard to deny, he doesn’t even bother trying. But the part where you extract as much and surrender as little as possible through ruthlessness and savvy? Well, we wouldn’t have been in this mess if he was worse at it.

And so when he offers insights into the inner workings, they’re worth taking seriously.

After the latest, and longest in a long time, round of MLB labor negotiations wrapped up Thursday night with a new labor contract, Manfred had this to say: “The way the process of collective bargaining is designed, it’s really driven by time and economic leverage.”

He was justifying that the lockout stretched for nearly 100 days, only to be lifted following a deal in the nick of time. He is, I’m sorry to say, correct that in a sport built on posturing and brinkmanship (bargaining, not baseball), it’s difficult to motivate either side to move much until they’re up against the clock.

But his evaluation of the two factors fails to explain how the players walked away with a deal they can comfortably consider a win, if not a clear and decisive one.

Owners have more money (on a magnitude that goes widely underappreciated). They controlled the timing of the lockout. Their careers in baseball are longer than those of players. They’ve been benefiting financially from the existing economic structure. Which is all to say, they should have had all the time and economic leverage.

This is partially why player unions, across the sports, have struggled to make significant gains against ownership in recent decades. The other major men's leagues have seen the introduction of a salary cap, and even the MLBPA — once a preeminent trailblazer — has succeeded only in staving off a salary cap, but surrendered a luxury tax and lost ground elsewhere.

MLB will play a full 162-game season after the lockout ended. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
MLB will play a full 162-game season after the lockout ended. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

It’s always a tall order to enter collective bargaining looking to walk away with more than you gave up. Since it’s always all about money, we can say that even more succinctly: It’s difficult to demand more of it, even if you have a compelling case, without withholding your labor.

In the end, the players got $250 million in new money over the course of the deal in pre-arbitration bonus pool money, the $20 million increase in the luxury tax threshold from last season to this is the largest ever year-over-year, as is the $129,500 increase in the minimum salary. They wanted a draft lottery, and got it. There was at least a nominal attempt to prevent service time manipulation, and even the postseason field expanded to only their preferred 12 teams rather than 14 like the league wanted.

Granted, it’s impossible for ownership to ever truly lose — they have access to a legal monopoly of essentially guaranteed appreciating assets and, as we’ve seen exemplified in recent days, they can repackage their product for staggering new revenue in the form of streaming rights — but the new CBA pushes the economics of the sport back toward the players’ direction.

And they did it by not blinking.

It was the owners’ lockout, but the players succeeded where they did by maintaining a credible threat to miss regular season games.

Manfred explained his many specious deadlines as “an art form that’s important in terms of making a deal.” Which is really just a fancy way of calling them a pressure tactic.

And if there’s an art to setting deadlines, there’s an equal art to not taking them seriously. Bluffing is best countered by calling it, which the union did repeatedly to push its agenda forward. In response, the league proved unwilling to find out just how serious the players were about holding out when the calendar, not the commissioner, canceled games.

“Guys were prepared. Guys have been prepared for years now. Guys have been preparing for this fight, to try and make the system better for themselves and for future generations of players. Guys understood what that might take,” said Bruce Meyer, the union’s lead negotiator hired ahead of these CBA talks and who proved a difference maker this time around.

“So if we hadn't gotten a deal that the majority of players were happy with, then yes, I think players were prepared to do whatever it took.”

If that was a bluff, we’ll never have to find out.

If anything, the 12 members of the executive board who voted against the final deal are a testament to the fact that it was not. The board’s job was to push for as much as possible; the rank-and-file get to decide when they’ve gotten enough.

I’m skeptical they could have gotten much more, at least not anytime soon. The league walked back the threat to leave canceled games off the schedule entirely, but that’s because there was still time to squeeze them and play the World Series on schedule. Once that stopped being true, the negotiations would get only more complicated. The players wanted a full year’s pay and service time, and to get it when the schedule could no longer accommodate 162 games as easily, they might have had to give up something else.

In the end, they made the gains you can make by only being willing to miss games, without the complication of actually missing games. That’s a win. It’s just not enough for radical structural change.

The new CBA retains the existing structures for arbitration and the same path to free agency. The union had entered the bargaining process seeking to reform those so players could earn closer to their market value earlier in their careers. But those tenets of team cost control were labeled “non-starters” by the league and ultimately fell off the table in pursuit of higher-dollar figures and a timely deal.

Maybe sitting out a month or two or the whole season could convince the owners to loosen their grip on the reserve clause. Or maybe that kind of change just isn’t possible.

“It's difficult, but we're never gonna give up on some of those things. This is the labor process. I mean, we have determined adversaries on the other side, all of whom are billionaires and have enormous resources,” Meyer said.

“Whether more can be accomplished in the future, we'll have to see. I think so. Nobody should ever want to underestimate Major League Baseball players or the Major League Baseball Players Association. Nothing is impossible for this group.”