Labor peace is a lie, pt. 1: Robert Cannon, Marvin Miller, and the first CBA

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Over the next few weeks, I’ll be emailing out article-sized sections of a larger story, titled “Labor peace is a lie.” The goal is to provide context for why the Major League Baseball Players Association formed in the first place, why it operated the way it used to, and how Major League Baseball and its owners eventually changed their tactics combating the union, all of which connects to the lack of free agent activity today. At the center of it all is the concept of “labor peace,” and, well, we’ll get to how I feel about that.

Here’s the first part of the larger story, which looks at the origins of the union and the direction it nearly went in before its first possible leader saved the players from themselves, all because of geography. If you missed any of the other five parts, you can find them here.

Labor peace seems like an admirable goal. On one side, you have the players, and on the other side, you have the owners. If they’re at peace, then we, the fans, get baseball, the players get paid, and the owners continue to see the benefits of television deals and revenue-sharing and everything else profitable in MLB.

Everybody wins, and MLB’s website can run articles with URLs that say things like “labor peace benefits everyone in MLB” without anyone taking a second to think about how weird it is that MLB has their own outlet designed to influence fan opinion on matters like labor peace.

Public opinion is the key to labor discussions in MLB, and ownership has been aware of that for decades. The players are viewed as greedy and spoiled, even though they’re the labor force that generates the profits to make the owners — who are richer by far than even the very richest of MLB’s players — even richer. If the money isn’t going toward creating millionaires out of players who are generating those dollars in the first place, it’s going toward moving billionaires further up those high-score leaderboards of the world’s richest people you can find in Forbes.

That’s not unintentional: ownership has long leaned on the pressure of the public to keep the players in line, to keep them from asking for their fair share of MLB’s ever-growing pie. In fact, public pressure was how MLB and ownership managed to turn the tide on the Major League Baseball Players Union, which was, at one time, easily the most powerful in sports.

The truth is that labor peace is a lie: ownership is in a perpetual struggle to scale back the gains players have made in collective bargaining. Time and time again in the game’s history, MLB’s owners have blatantly attempted to remove benefits of the players, and time and time again, they failed because the union remained focused on both short- and long-term visions.

However, MLB and their team owners have spent the decades since the 1994 strike reevaluating their plan of attack to adjust for that, and it’s how today we end up seeing praise for decades of labor peace instead of questions about why the players aren’t pushing back harder while their rights are being stripped away and their future weakened.

The owners never wanted true peace with the players

Baseball’s ownership was never interested in peace in the time before the players’ union and free agency. Not real peace, anyway: the owners were fine with the system where they had all of the money and power and could do whatever they wanted without consequence, and were happy to pretend that was peaceful just like any other despot would. There’s a reason John Helyar titled his seminal work on the owners and the formation of the union Lords of the Realm.

When the players finally attempted to do something to change all that by forming a union in 1954, it still took another 14 years before the first collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association was signed. If you’re wondering how that was allowed to happen, one of the men advising the MLBPA in this pre-Marvin Miller time was Robert Cannon, a Wisconsin judge who at one time fell a single vote shy of being elected MLB commissioner, and whose mission statement as the part-time representative of the players was to “make no demands, no public statements.”

If that sounds to you like someone who was an ally of ownership, it’s because they were. From the Society for American Baseball Research’s biography of Cannon:

When Cannon started meeting the players as he toured spring training camps, his message was simple: work with the owners. He constantly reminded the men how good they had it. He wanted the players to make no waves. Above all, the players should foster a greater relationship with the benevolent owners. In essence Cannon was preaching to the players from the beginning, before he even met everyone and understood the demands and responsibilities entrusted to him. He never did grasp the industry from a player’s perspective.

When Cannon was briefly selected as the first-ever full-time executive director of the MLBPA after nearly a decade of getting nowhere new, the owners agreed to pay $150,000 toward his salary and expenses, knowing he was more on their side than the players. The same owners who hadn’t negotiated anything besides a pension with the players, nor begun collective bargaining talks in the decade-plus the union had existed, just tossed $150,000 in 1966 dollars toward “helping” the players out, definitely, for sure, man.

Cannon decided against moving to New York for this job, however, which saved the MLBPA a number of headaches many members weren’t even aware of in the organization’s infancy (Miller had a hell of a time convincing union members they even wanted an actual union back in his first days, if you’re wondering how Cannon was in this position to reject the job in the first place), and reopened the door for labor-rights veteran Marvin Miller to become the actual first full-time executive director of the MLBPA. The owners rescinded the $150,000 offer they had extended Cannon, because at this time in America actually being pro-union instead of whatever Cannon was doing was basically the same thing as being a communist.

The owners were fine with this proto-players union, which under Cannon better resembled an illegal company or “yellow” union dominated by its employer, especially once the owners were helping to pay for him — they could control it both from above and, through Cannon and his ideology, from within. The true butting of heads between owners and players didn’t begin until the lie of labor peace could be shown for what it was, and Miller’s entire tenure as executive director of the MLBPA was about exposing that lie.

Marvin Miller and the MLBPA’s first real labor battle

Not to take away from the pension that the MLBPA negotiated with MLB owners over a decade before, but Marvin Miller as Executive Director was the union’s true beginning as a force for baseball’s ruling class to reckon with. The first collective bargaining agreement, signed in 1968, gave players an increased minimum salary, from $7,000 to $10,000. Players were able to expense more and were given more allowances. This first CBA, which ran through the 1969 season, also formally introduced a way for players to file grievances — players would be able to state their case in front of the commissioner, which meant this system was still very pro-owner, but it was better than the previous system, which today could be succinctly likened to a “deal with it” meme.

All of this happened because, unlike Robert Cannon, Marvin Miller demanded more from the owners for the players he was representing. In 1970, he demanded even more, resulting in an improved and fairer grievance system with independent arbitrators who would hear disputes instead of the commissioner — that is, unless they fell into the still-nebulous “best interests of baseball” territory that current commissioner Rob Manfred has threatened to invoke for pace of play initiatives. An arbitration panel would eventually be what gave players their free agency, which the owners vehemently opposed before, during, and after its implementation.

Had Miller been focused on maintaining the peace, like Cannon, none of this would have happened. And this was just the beginning for the MLBPA.

The second part of this story will focus on the rise of free agency, collusion, and the strikes of the 1980s

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