JUPITER, Fla. – The biggest perversion of union rights in generations marched ahead in Wisconsin on Monday, and it worries Michael Weiner. He runs the Major League Baseball Players Association, which has been called the strongest union in the world or, at very least, in the United States. The MLBPA is going nowhere. Other unions are getting broken right and left.
Weiner shook his head.
"It's one thing to ask for concessions," he said. "It's another thing to take away their right to bargain collectively."
Weiner sees the power of a union and its importance in a society that skews more oligarchical by the day. Certainly, his union is different than most – one populated with the ultra-rich rather than the working class. Still, the guiding principle of the MLBPA – ensure the ability to negotiate – is at the very foundation of the dispute in Wisconsin. And as he made the first stop of his annual spring training tour at St. Louis Cardinals camp Monday morning, Weiner made sure to remind the locker room of players the importance of their rights earned over more than 40 years of bargaining with his predecessors, Marvin Miller and Don Fehr.
"What has made this union so strong is the cross-generational connection," Weiner said. "Guys understand that. When you work for a union, you never take that for granted. But because of everything done by the players in years past, everything done under Marvin and Don's leadership, we're now reinforcing the history instead of having to create it anew."
Baseball is in a unique place: staring at labor peace for more than a decade straight. The working relationship between Weiner and his MLB counterpart, Rob Manfred, is respectful. The sides recognize they need each other to keep a $7 billion-and-growing industry afloat. The pettiness and greed that permeates the NFL's labor discussions no longer exist in baseball.
Over the next few weeks, MLB and the union will engage in preliminary discussions about the next collective-bargaining agreement, which expires on Dec. 11. During a nearly two-hour presentation, Weiner covered the issues pertinent to these negotiations – from rejiggering revenue sharing to spending more money to the suggestion of a ban on smokeless tobacco – and took questions from the Cardinals about issues big and small.
The meetings, players said, are fascinating in their dynamics. Much of the rank-and-file grew up during the 1994 strike, a moment that showed the strength – and, some would argue, the pigheadedness – of the union. Younger players often ask questions about why the union exists.
"The veteran players reiterate the importance of sticking together," said reliever Kyle McClellan(notes), the Cardinals' player representative. "Between our veterans and our leaderships, we're very aware of the past. People talk about '94. They talk about what we had to do to gain things and hang onto them. That's the difference between us and everyone else – solidarity."
Such solidarity takes the differences that permeate a baseball clubhouse – racial, socioeconomic and, most telling, political – and render them moot. One player took a licensing check out of his locker Monday. It was for about $6,500. The regular licensing check is for about $40,000, he said. While the idea of any entity taking more than 80 percent of his check didn't rest well with him, he didn't begin to question the union using the money to build up a war chest in case labor negotiations don't go as planned.
"I trust them," the player said. "We don't want to end up like the NFL where we're losing our leverage because players are going out and spending their money. I'm fine giving up money for the good of the union."
Those words – for the good of the union – edify Weiner and his staff. The full support of the rank-and-file is imperative for a successful negotiation. In times of labor peace, of course, it's easier to obtain.
There will be issues of contention. While MLB sources have indicated they will pursue a worldwide draft during bargaining sessions, Weiner indicated it would be a tricky plan to implement
"The idea of a worldwide draft – while not prejudging what happens at the bargaining table – is difficult," he said. "We're prepared to talk about reforming how all entry-level players come into the game. The logistics of applying a unitary draft to players from such varying conditions, though, is tough. When we've discussed it in the past, it hasn't happened, and it isn't a conceptual question as much as a logistical one."
Weiner understands that a negotiation's fingerprints affect every player, and the union must look at Albert Pujols(notes) the same it does Jon Jay(notes). Even if the union's greatest victory before Dec. 11 will be getting the revenue-sharing mechanisms adjusted to give the larger-revenue teams more incentive to spend money, it's often the middle-of-the-road player – say, Joaquin Benoit(notes) – who drives the market more than the top-end one.
Thank goodness, the MLBPA says, for a free market. Laws that differentiate between private and public unions prevent what's happening in Wisconsin from taking place in baseball. As Weiner spends the next week going through Florida, he'll remind the players of what they have and why they have it. And, most important, why they can never, ever let it go, no matter how hard someone tries to take it away from them.