James Andres, who had just started working at the Kroger supermarket in Westland, Mich., in March, contracted coronavirus in April and died last weekend. The manager of a Kroger in Murfreesboro, Tenn., died after testing positive for COVID-19. Kroger announced that its $2-an-hour “hero pay” bonus for employees will expire, as previously scheduled, this weekend, even though the pandemic has done anything but expire. Meanwhile, the CEO of Kroger, Rodney McMullen, also recently in the news for taking off his face mask at an event with Mike Pence, got a 21% pay raise.
Workers in America take risks, sometimes losing their lives, while their employers jerk around their pay, all while top executives are handsomely rewarded for keeping margins humming. That’s how it’s always been, but it’s come into clearer focus with the brazen actions of companies like Kroger in the middle of this pandemic.
There are a lot of reasons that Major League Baseball is not a typical American business, but don’t think for a second that if this season gets going, it doesn’t represent a risk for the players. While the focus of coverage of coronavirus has been how deadly it is for the elderly, there still have been more than a thousand deaths of people under 44, with that younger subgroup accounting for 2.7% of deaths in the United States through May 2, according to CDC data.
Of course, if ballplayers return to the diamond, they’re not just putting themselves at risk. They’ll be in close quarters with their managers, coaches and trainers. They’ll be riding buses that are driven by people. They’ll be in hotels, where people work. They’ll be around many more people than they would be if they stayed home, and that puts all of those people at risk, not to mention the players’ families and the families of all the people they come into contact with. Risking exposure to a highly contagious virus is not the same as risking a strained oblique muscle or a torn knee ligament. And we don’t know if the long-term aftereffects of COVID-19 could be career-threatening for athletes.
As the players are asked to take serious risks with their own health — and the health of so many others who don’t have a voice in baseball’s decision about whether or not to start the 2020 season — their employers are jerking around their pay.
Management and the MLBPA agreed last month that players would be paid on a prorated basis for any season this year, based on the number of games played. For half a season, that would mean players as a group taking home $2 billion less than what they had been scheduled to make — despite having guaranteed contracts.
But that’s not good enough for the owners, as Jon Heyman reported on Tuesday night. “MLB’s position is that it will lose more money if they play games without fans and pay prorated salaries than if they don’t play at all,” Heyman wrote.
So, MLB’s idea is to propose a split based on revenues, although that proposal has not yet been formalized.
Basically, owners made a deal with the players, got panicked by the feeling that the deal wasn’t going to be favorable to them, and now are trying to find a way to do a new deal. They’ve had a long record of success getting the public to buy the “greedy players” line of rhetoric, and already are finding some footing with it in this argument with allies like Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and MLBPA member-turned-management stooge Mark Teixiera.
The other part of the standard American labor tale, where those at the top get rewarded as workers struggle, isn’t even another part in the baseball equation. It’s simple: The less money that goes to the players, the more that the owners get to keep. And apparently the $2 billion the owners already have clawed back through negotiation — at least $2 billion, considering that half a season is the maximum imaginable amount of baseball this year — isn’t enough for them.
The narrative that the owners seek to create excludes the key element that this negotiation puts it on the players to stand up not only for their own interests, but those of everyone they would come into contact with, and the general public in the cities where they would play.
Ballplayers never will get the sympathy in their labor fights that supermarket workers will, but when it comes to stopping the spread of a deadly disease, keeping ballplayers at home until it’s actually safe for them to work is important to protecting those same supermarket workers who are dying because they show up to work at jobs that really are essential.
The owners aren’t going to be the ones risking their health. They also don’t want to risk their money. It’s a story that, unfortunately, is typical of America.