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MLB and the MLBPA Begin Preliminary Talks: How Things Are the Same, Yet Different This Time Around

5th May 2006

And so it begins…

Commissioner Selig and Gene Orza have confirmed that initial talks have started over the key areas that each side will want to address in the next round of collective bargaining. The talks have been no more than phone calls at this stage, but it is the beginning. The current agreement expires on December 19th.

The question is, will this time be different than the last? Or, will this time be a continuation in what many see as a thawing of relations between labor and management in Major League Baseball?

The answer is a bit of both.

The difference between this round of collective bargaining and the last is that they have the past to look forward to. It may have been an “all nighter come down to the wire 11th hour deal”, but nonetheless, there was an agreement in 2002 without a work stoppage. That, in and of itself, was historic.

Since Marvin Miller became the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1965 till now, there have been a total of 8 work stoppages totaling 366 days and 1,719 games lost. Up until the last CBA, MLB and the MLBPA had batted 1.000 on work stoppages – 8 for 8.

That changed in 2002 when, for the first time, labor peace was achieved. The significance of that cannot be underestimated.

As I wrote in for my article in The Hardball Times 2006 Annual:

Maybe it was the anniversary of 9/11. Maybe it was that gnawing reminder of the ’94-’95 strike. The two sides hammered out a deal and proved that they had the ability not to poke themselves in the eye for a 9th time.

So, what will be different this time around?

I’ve been pounding this home for some time, but revenue sharing seems to be the biggest issue. Since that was the topic of my last week on The Hardball Times, maybe we can wax philosophical about what maybe the mindset of both sides.

The lines of communication have been far more open than in any point in time between the MLBPA and management. Whether Don Fehr and those that were witness to Collusion I, II, and III will ever forgive management for that terrible indiscretion seems debatable. What does seem fairly clear is that there seems to be a level of trust between the sides that was sorely lacking for the better part of 40 years.

And, fatter wallets have made both sides less aggressive.

When Marvin Miller was heading up the Players Association, there was a sense of instilling empowerment into the union members. They had been undervalued by the owners, and Miller gave the players a sense that they were the show, not the owners.

The MLBPA also worked with the PRC to install rights to the players through labor law. The owners went kicking and screaming into all of this at nearly every turn.

Now, it’s hard to rally the troops. The players are more than well compensated, there is a clear protocol for labor dispute between the players and management and at this point and this time, everyone is doing well financially. That makes getting the troops riled-up for a strike far more difficult.

Consider… the vast majority of the union membership has now never had a career in which a work stoppage has occurred. Making sacrifices “for your future union brothers” is a difficult concept to grasp. In that sense, being a hardliner is going to be difficult, if not impossible for the MLBPA. It would take monumental stupidity on the part of management to give the MLBPA a rallying cry; not that MLB couldn’t do that, but what’s the incentive?

On management’s side of the ledger, the owners are all growing more wealthy since 2002. The MLBPA will want to grab more of a share of those monies (the MLBAM, for one), but for the most part, the main issues may well lie internally as opposed to externally.

Bob DuPuy has said that the revenue sharing system doesn’t need wholesale changes, but rather “tweaking”. “Tweaking” maybe harder than it seems depending on how the lower revenue making clubs and those feeding revenue into the revenue sharing system see it. There is little doubt that lawyers are looking for a way to keep revenue sharing in place and make adjustments that will satisfy both sides. Now, whether there is a Luxury Tax in the next CBA…

In closing, what seems clear is both MLB and the MLBPA understand what the NFL does: Stability breeds a healthy sports industry. Advertisers, and those that invest in MLB are far more likely to do long-term business with MLB if they have a level of comfort in knowing that the wheels aren’t always in jeopardy of falling off.

Are there serious issues that still need to be addressed? Certainly. Is MLB and the MLBPA a blissful, always harmonious love-fest? Hardly. But, things are certainly better than at any point in time since the ascension of the Players Association. Maybe old wounds can really be healed.

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