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Over the last few few weeks, I’ve been emailing out sections of a larger story, titled “Labor peace is a lie.” Here’s part six, the conclusion, on the players starting to get angry and get (re)organized. If you missed any of the other five parts, you can find them here.
The players are finally realizing their mistake
While enough fans don’t seem to care about present-day labor issues in MLB, the players certainly do. What has been a less and less effective union as time has gone on is now seemingly galvanized by consecutive horrible offseasons, to the point where players like Kenley Jansen and Adam Wainwright are openly talking about striking years before the MLBPA can legally stage one.*
*The players could strike before the current collective bargaining agreement expires, but it would be deemed an illegal strike by the National Labor Relations Board. This would result in any number of punishments, from contracts of participating players being voided up to effectively breaking the union or erasing some of its decades of progress. Similarly, the owners cannot legally lock players out mid-CBA, either. Grievances are the name of the game while a CBA is active, and the MLBPA has already filed a few against the Pirates, Rays, Marlins, and Athletics over their failure to spend revenue-sharing dollars, with the results of those grievances still pending.
Union leadership might have lost the battle on public relations by conceding and conceding and focusing on maintaining labor peace and free agency above all, but the likes of Jansen, Wainwright, Eric Hosmer, Justin Verlander,Kris Bryant, Chris Sale, Pat Neshek, and others have spotted the lie of labor peace for what it is, and are attempting to change the conversation. As Jansen implies, the word “strike” needs to reenter the union’s lexicon: there is no true, equal conversation to be had if the MLBPA’s most significant tool is never at their disposal, and the last two decades have seen it kept on the shelf. Ownership knows this, too.
Changing the conversation is the key: MLB’s owners realized decades ago that the conversation was what was holding them back. The lords couldn’t be seen as lords anymore: they needed to be seen as the stewards of the game, loyal to it and willing to compromise with the players to keep it alive. The results of Bud Selig’s blue ribbon panel on baseball economics might have been a farce, but they were a convincing one to both fans and media, a farce the MLBPA never had a convincing answer to. That put the players in the position of being viewed as the greedy ones willing to take the game off of life support if it earned them a larger piece of the pie, and nearly 20 years later, we’re still having those talks even as the game rakes in an annual $10 billion in revenue.
MLB’s owners succeeded by changing the conversation. They’ve continued to succeed by adjusting to the innovations of the era, building a media empire to go along with the game on the field, one that can be used to promote the values of labor peace as easily as it can subtly discuss how lucrative, long-term contracts are a risk the smart teams in baseball know better than to take. It can play up the value of inexpensive prospects and the importance of players signing team-friendly extensions, and even build a new (and more importantly, legal) centralized information bank for owners and front offices in the form of proprietary statistical platforms like Statcast. Have you ever wondered why players are saying they’re getting very similar offers from multiple teams at the same time these last couple of years? Or why all of this is happening now all at once, instead of progressively over the last couple of decades? You should be.
The players don’t have access to any of this. They can, however, speak openly to the media, where they can find some journalists willing to do actual journalism instead of simply acting as mouthpieces for ownership and front offices. Players can take to social media platforms as they’ve been doing, but in larger numbers. Players can write op-eds, or try to start movements. Players can utilize the athlete-centric Players’ Tribune to tell their side of the story — well, sure, maybe Captain Class Traitor won’t be so keen on that last one these days. But maybe Jetes will be too busy trading arb-eligible Marlins to notice the site he founded becoming the players’ version of Rheinische Zeitung. A commie can dream, OK?
It’s not impossible to change the conversation — the owners already successfully did it once. The players have a long road ahead of them, though, to convince everyone that labor peace only serves the status quo, and the status quo only strengthens ownership. It’s a road worth traveling, and the sooner the greater MLBPA membership realizes this, the sooner and more effectively they can work towards reversing trends in 2021’s collective bargaining.
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