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An MLB Strike Threat Might Be The Players’ Only Leverage

When it’s time.
Photo: Matt Slocum (AP Photo)

There hasn’t been a strike in Major League Baseball for nearly 25 years. Not coincidentally, MLB’s owners and front offices are at this moment in arguably the strongest position they’ve occupied since before the Major League Baseball Players Association existed. They’re using it to implode free agency, openly tank their teams while pocketing revenue-sharing dollars, and manipulate service time with a brazenness that’s new even for them. So it’s no surprise that, for the second offseason in a row, players are talking about the possibility of and need for a strike in order to stop owners from continuing to scale back their collectively bargained rights.

A strike isn’t something that the MLBPA can just call out of nowhere, and it’s not something that any union wants to do. But it is a vital tool for players as for any other union, and one that has arguably been left sitting in the MLBPA’s toolbox for far too long. There is a long and successful history of baseball strikes, and those strikes helped the MLBPA become the most powerful union in sports. Despite the protests of media members who feel that today’s players should just focus on a “compromise solution” for “the good of the sport,” baseball players know that there’s power in a union; their paychecks are proof of that. If it comes down to it, utilizing that power won’t just help them, but could also help improve the game’s sustainability over the long term.

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The MLBPA as we know it began in 1968 with the signing of the first collective bargaining agreement in pro sports. Marvin Miller, executive director of the Players Association, demanded much more from ownership than his predecessor Robert Cannon had. Prior to the 1969 season, Miller urged players not to sign new deals or report to spring training until ownership contributed more to the league’s pension fund; the league had just expanded to include four new teams and signed television deals that brought in new revenue. While not a strike, that gambit was a collective action taken by players who, just a few years prior, had to be convinced by Miller that simply being in a union didn’t make them communists. That experience and the solidarity it built helped embolden the players in 1972, when the first strike in MLB history occurred from April 1 through April 13. The players authorized that action by a vote of 663-10.

The players had no strike fund, and no real idea of what striking would entail, as John Helyar tells it in his book Lords of the Realm. Miller explained it all to them, though, and the hard reality of their situation combined with the insistence of MLB’s owners that the players wouldn’t see “another goddamn cent” helped unify them behind the goal of showing ownership that they stood together and were unwilling to be “browbeaten” or broken.

And it worked. It worked despite a press that was very much in the owners’ corner, despite fans who agreed with those writers, despite the owners’ promise of not “another goddamn cent.” That first strike won the MLBPA what they wanted, but it also taught the players that, when unified, they could strike and win. They would do so again in 1981, after successfully weathering three different lockouts in 1973, 1976, and 1978, and after bargaining into existence the concepts of arbitration and free agency. The 1981 strike began on June 12, and 713 games were canceled before play resumed on August 9.

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This time, the media and fans blamed owners for this work stoppage. The owners wanted a compensation system in place for free agency, and fans loved free agency. They also weren’t convinced by the owners’ claims that the game was less popular because free agency made it too expensive: Per Helyar, attendance was up by 39 percent and total revenues up 66 percent in the three years following the institution of free agency. Plus, free agency added something that had been missing from the last two offseasons: the opportunity for fans to speculate about player movement and get excited about major upgrades that come through free agency. Fans love that feature to this day, and the owners’ insistence on ruining it did not make them any friends.

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Free-agent compensation eventually became part of the compromise that ended the 1981 strike, although the resulting version was such a convoluted disaster of protected players and “premium” free agent designations that it was dropped during the next negotiations. “Fans couldn’t understand how the White Sox claimed Tom Seaver from the Mets as compensation for losing Dennis Lamp to Toronto,” Doug Pappas wrote at ESPN. “George Steinbrenner couldn’t understand how Oakland could draft top prospect Tim Belcher from the Yankees when Belcher hadn’t even signed with the Yankees until after the deadline for the club to submit its list of protected players.”

Scrapping that confounding proto-free agency wasn’t considered a major victory for the owners, given that the system angered fans, players, and the media; in the end, it was reviled even by the people who were supposed to benefit from it. That compensation mess brought the MLBPA to the next strike, in 1985. That one lasted just two days, inadvertently helped pave the way for some of the free agency issues of today, and ushered in the collusion years of the mid-to-late-80s. They aren’t all winners, okay? But part of the reason this strike foundered was that players weren’t unified.

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Veterans who already had secured their big payday swiftly forgot about the younger players who hadn’t yet made it big or received that life-changing contract. Bob Boone, who had been so important to earlier labor battles, wasn’t convinced a strike was necessary to protect younger players who hadn’t gotten rich yet. He wasn’t alone in this, just louder. The disunity showed itself publicly when, in order to rid themselves of free-agent compensation, the MLBPA agreed to increase the service time that players would have to log before becoming eligible for arbitration from two to three years. That gave MLB owners a much larger class of inexpensive talent to focus on instead of free agents, which... is still a problem, as it happens. Boone didn’t avoid a strike over arbitration as he had hoped, but he and other veterans did get what they wanted. Younger players were sold out in the name of labor peace and veterans’ paychecks continuing unabated, against the advice of folks like Miller and then-associate general counsel Gene Orza.

That failure to stand together as they did in the early 1970s, or again during the 1990 lockout goes a long way towards explaining how more recent collective bargaining agreements ended up limiting draft spending and international free agent spending, and, eventually, bringing back convoluted free-agent compensation schemes that both restricted player movement and depressed salaries. In ’85, the union focused on free agency as a financial cure-all, which did little for players who weren’t or couldn’t get there. Today, it’s failing even those who make it.

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There would be unity once more in 1994, helping to set up the MLBPA’s last and longest strike. This time, owners attempted to eliminate arbitration, introduce restricted free agency, and institute a salary cap, all in the same CBA. Each item was by itself a non-starter; any could reasonably have justified a strike. As it turned out, the 1994 strike led to the World Series being canceled, and MLB owners overwhelmingly voted for the use of replacement players in ‘95. That tactic required the intervention of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, then a District Court judge in New York, after the MLBPA filed an unfair labor practices grievance against MLB ownership, which had asserted that free agency, arbitration, and the anti-collusion rules put in place in 1990 weren’t actually part of the CBA, and therefore no longer existed.

Sotomayor’s injunction allowed baseball to resume under the previous CBA until the parties agreed to a new one; eventually, this process would lead to the institution of the luxury tax in place of a salary cap, but it would also allow the anti-collusion and arbitration rules to live on, which finally put to bed (most of) the horrors of 1980s collusion and the 1990 lockout. While there were certainly casualties of this work stoppage—the Expos’ popularity, chances for certain records to be broken, the ’94 World Series—the strike of 1994 and ’95 showed once again both what the players could do when they were on the same page and the kind of opposition they faced from owners.

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So: Can the MLBPA get back to that place again, one in which they are a true force in labor negotiations and a threat to effectively strike? Yes, but please imagine a dramatic pause before that affirmative.

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The last collective bargaining agreement is not a great one for players, and the union’s own members have said so this spring. It nevertheless is the current collective bargaining agreement, and so while it’s unfair that ownership is exploiting every loophole it has, it’s also the agreement that will be built upon or burned down in the next round of negotiations in 2021. The players can’t declare all the previously agreed-upon decisions illegal, as the owners tried to do before the National Labor Relations Board and Judge Sotomayor stopped them short. The players can fight to fix what they believe is broken, though, even if that means a work stoppage.

Unity is step one, and early returns there are promising. More and more players are speaking out about how teams aren’t trying in lieu of cashing checks, and on how tanking is hurting the game, and on how the now-ubiquitous practice of service-time manipulation reflects teams obviously acting in bad faith. That free agency hasn’t worked out as planned and has caused arbitration-eligible players to sign long-term, below-market deals to avoid sitting by the phone come next February should make it even easier to get everyone on the same page. Speaking on these matters in public hints at a unity of purpose that’s been missing in the MLBPA for too long, but the real test will be the fight ahead.

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The MLBPA is going to need more than unity, though. They’re going to need solidarity from other unions that will be impacted by the strike, if only because they’re still millionaires facing off against billionaires, and because sympathy for either is generally in short supply. What Nationals’ reliever Sean Doolittle and the MLBPA have done in supporting the unionized New Era employees who make MLB’s hats—union workers who are about to see their jobs shipped off to non-union workers in Florida in the name of some marginal profit—should be the start of something. Next time there’s a strike at a hotel where MLB teams stay, the MLBPA should unequivocally support those workers, join them on the picket line, and use their platforms to support them. They should also vocally support unionized stadium workers, unionized airline employees, unionized public transit employees, and anyone even tangentially related to the booming and significantly more lucrative business of baseball that might be impacted by a work stoppage. If the players are there for those workers, then those workers will be there for the players in their time of need. That’s solidarity, and it works.

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Finally and most urgently, the MLBPA must broaden its fight to include a group that even labor legend Marvin Miller could not work in: the minor-league players that comprise baseball’s working class. Fixing the sport’s entire pay system from the bottom up might end up reducing MLB salaries, but it will also make for better pay from the start of a professional baseball career, which would in turn make it easier for players to reject blatantly team-friendly deals in the future. Fighting for MiLB’s thousands of exploited players would also cut into any potential plans for replacement players. If you think Rob Manfred would never go down the same road Bud Selig did 25 years ago, consider teams’ current willingness to ignore proven big-league players in favor of cheaper alternatives. Those lucrative TV deals don’t specify who will be on the field, just what uniform they’ll be wearing. Both sides know it, and players should act accordingly.

All that is good preparation for an impending work stoppage, but there’s one last thing to keep in mind: there probably won’t be a strike. The players can want a strike, be prepared to strike, but the calendar doesn’t favor that decision. The current CBA expires in December of 2021, and ownership may well want to avoid entering the 2022 season without an agreement in place, which would give players a chance to strike. It’s likelier that we’ll see another lockout, the first since 1990. It will be just as ugly.

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The lockout of 1990 was the result of ownership overplaying its hand, in part out of anger at having been caught and punished for colluding over the previous three years. Whether MLB’s owners are colluding again is unknown, although they’re undeniably squeezing this CBA for everything it’s worth in what certainly looks like an organized fashion. Players have noticed, and if they push hard for changes in the next CBA as a result, it will likely mean MLB’s first lockout in decades. Owners will attempt to paint the players as the ones in the wrong. Again.

Whether the game stops because of a lockout or a strike barely matters, though, and not just because too many people will confuse one for the other and blame the players either way. Some sort of conflict is coming, and players need to unify and stay strong whether they’re planning a strike or reacting to a lockout. The status quo will only ever benefit the owners; baseball’s history tells us that. It also suggests that, when they stand together, players can do a great deal to shape their own destiny.

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Marc Normandin is the former MLB Editor of SB Nation, and currently writes a newsletter on baseball’s labor issues and more for Patreon subscribers. His baseball writing has appeared at Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Sports on Earth, and Baseball Prospectus.

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