MLB and the MLBPA negotiated 2020 salaries, or so we thought

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Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association spent some time early on in the season postponement discussing vital topics, such as how service would work in a shortened or canceled season, or how players would be paid whether there was baseball to play or not in 2020. It seemed as if the latter was a finished issue, but according to published reports, that might not be how MLB’s team owners see things.

To recap the talks that have taken place, MLB and the MLBPA agreed to a few key conditions. The first is that $170 million was given to the MLBPA by the teams in April and May, to be dispersed among its members: if baseball were to return, that $170 million would be cut out of what the teams still owed players for the season. Then, if there was a shortened season, players would be paid prorated versions of their existing salary agreements, minus whatever their cut of the $170 million was. Last, if there were no baseball whatsoever, players would only be paid whatever they got out of that $170 million, and in exchange for the service time agreements the two sides came to, would not sue for their full wages.

That might sound like the players got the short end of things in a vacuum, but they weren’t negotiating in a vacuum: MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has the power to suspend player contracts during a national emergency, and if the entire season is suspended, then the national emergency we’re facing is assuredly ongoing. That means MLB had the power to say players will get nothing and like it if there’s no baseball, but instead, the two sides worked out a deal that gave MLBPA members some assurances on service time and pay, while also gaining MLB the union’s blessing on some matters I’m not going to stop being upset about for a while.

That brings us to the present dilemma: there are MLB owners who believe the matter of compensation for 2020 is not a settled one, and that, should MLB return this season without fans in attendance, the players need to take an actual pay cut, and not just a proration of their guaranteed contracts. It all started with the Wilpons, the owners of the Mets, speaking with New York governor Andrew Cuomo, as covered by Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic, and apparently features a misunderstanding between the two sides on what was actually negotiated and agreed to already:

A separate section of the deal, listing the conditions for games to resume, says the commissioner’s office and the union “will discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators or at appropriate substitute neutral sites.” Similar phrasing exists in other parts of the agreement as well.

One person with knowledge of the deal said the clause was not intended to signal any willingness by the players to reopen salary discussions. Others said the issue was left undecided, and that the league made it clear to the union that economic adjustments would be necessary if games were played in empty parks.

A league spokesperson said that “both parties understood that the deal was premised on playing in stadiums with fans and the agreement makes that clear.”

A union source disagreed with the league’s characterization, saying the language regarding players receiving prorated salaries in the event of a partial season does not distinguish between games with or without fans.

The players, obviously, disagree that they should take further pay cuts, while execs are going a step further than “reduced pay cuts for 2020” and are already implying that anything involving player compensation — 2020 salaries, 2021’s collective bargaining on economic issues — probably won’t be normal again until 2023.

The latter, especially, is something to tackle in full at another time, but for now, one thing of interest to me is whether or not Manfred still has the power, after negotiating this initial agreement on how pay works, to suspend contracts during a national emergency. Is that leverage now gone? Are the players in a position to effectively strike and refuse to return to work in some kind of Baseball Bubble in Arizona, should the owners demand further cuts are necessary to make it work, as they no longer have to fear Manfred pulling the plug on their deals? One hopes so, because a return plan is already going to have inherent risks to it, risks the players will be dealing with first-hand while the owners are elsewhere in safety. Asking the players to take cuts on top of that is going too far, especially when, as noted above, an agreement was already made on how pay would work for 2020.

This is the problem with “good faith” negotiations with the league and its owners. There is no good faith to be found, and acting like there is will only cause problems. That’s been the case for decades now, since the made-up concept of “labor peace” took hold in the sport, and it’s a reliance on good-faith interpretations of things like service time that have put the players at a disadvantage with the league’s teams once again. Here, we have the league agreeing to a universal deal for 2020’s player compensation during a pandemic, until they decide that it wasn’t really a universal deal for player compensation during a pandemic, but just half of the discussion. At some point, any pretense that this isn’t purposeful has to be dismissed, right?

If the players are put in a position where they can only return in exchange for additional pay cuts, they shouldn’t return. MLB is going to do everything they can to leverage this pandemic into running the league how they see fit — they’re already doing it with the minors. Acquiescing to this demand is only going to give them more power over the players and their compensation, and just before CBA talks begin in earnest in 2021. That cannot happen if the union wants to avoid a repeat of the problems of the previous decade.

  • I linked this above, but in case you’re not a person who clicks on links within the text of a story, Baseball Prospectus published my feature on the fear that the two-tierification of the MLBPA is going to sell the union’s future short.

  • Craig Goldstein wrote about MLB as a microcosm of capitalism’s failure, so obviously I’m sharing that story.

  • This by Elizabeth Adetiba is on Caster Semenya and the “cruel history of contested black femininity.”

  • Brandon Thurston wrote about how WWE’s mass layoffs were both “heartless” and “economically unnecessary.” And yet, here we are.

  • Speaking of wrestling, those on the independent circuit are struggling during this time when their primary source of income, the thing they’ve devoted their lives to, is completely shut down.

  • And here’s Colette Arrend on WWE’s version of wrestling as an “essential business.”

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