Please stop both-sidesing the MLB labor battle

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With MLB commissioner Rob Manfred now saying he can’t 100 percent guarantee that there will be Major League Baseball games played in 2020, we’re about to witness a flood of “if only the two sides, equally at fault, would work together” sentiments. This was a take I was marinating even before Buster Olney woke up this morning and decided to both-sides what have very clearly been bad faith negotiations by the league:

Olney, at this point, is either willfully ignorant of reality, or incapable of comprehending what’s going on. It doesn’t matter which it is: the material damage is the same.

The owners have not, as mentioned above, been negotiating in good faith. They’ve repackaged the same proposal multiple times, trying to get the players to negotiate against themselves. They’ve publicly presented the players as the ones at fault here for refusing to take a second pay cut after they already agreed to prorated salaries back in March, while privately acknowledging that the players have every right to not agree to further salary slashing. The owners have been so awful in negotiations that they’re suddenly in danger of having the Players Association file a grievance that could cost the league $1 billion. That sort of thing doesn’t just happen, all accidental-like.

The owners now want players to waive that right to a grievance, so that there won’t be any repercussions to their scheduling the season length of their choosing, or their months and months of wasted negotiating time so they could attempt to strip mine whatever revenues a shortened 2020 season had for themselves. And the reaction to that from Olney, somehow, is some extreme “there’s actually zero difference between good & bad things” energy.

It’s not just Olney, but his reaction is certainly the worst of this strain. Ken Rosenthal isn’t quite sure what the end game for the union is here, but couches it in an article where he suggests the PA should be focusing on… a bunch of stuff that the league likely has zero interest in negotiating on or agreeing with. Jeff Passan opened his recent article for ESPN with this:

The league and players have spent the past two months bickering, not listening to one another and prioritizing self over sport. Their only job was to figure out how to get the game back on the field as soon as possible. They failed.

Putting baseball on your television is not the only goal here, and it shouldn’t be. Major League Baseball returning earlier, mid-pandemic, because the players let the owners walk all over them, let the owners further exploit them, let the owners get the upper hand in what has become, fairly or not, the first true battle of the coming collective bargaining negotiations, is what the owners would consider to be their job. It’s not also the players’ job: they’re supposed to come back in a way that makes sense to them, financially, health-wise, and with regard to the future of the union that got them this chance to have a seat at the table with the bosses in the first place. Framing articles, tweets, whatever like this, where both-sidesing is happening when it’s not merited, is counterproductive to recognizing reality.

The players agreed to prorated salaries back in March. They asked for the owners to prove a second wave of pay cuts was going to be necessary, and the owners did not deliver on that ask: the players have since refused to budge on the pay point. The players tried to figure out other ways to increase revenue and ease the owners’ fears of lost postseason dollars, should a second wave of coronavirus strike and prematurely end the 2020 campaign: they offered up not just one but two years of expanded postseason play, and proposed deferrals on salaries if the postseason were indeed shortened or canceled as feared. The owners responded by repackaging their earlier, awful proposal, once again, went out of their way to say the players’ refusal to budge on salary was holding up the works, and then had the audacity to claim it was the players who were not acting in “good faith” in these talks. And to some in the media, those claims rang true enough.

Part of the problem is cultural. We’re still writing about “labor peace” as if it’s a good thing, as if labor peace is what happens when the two sides are working in harmony, and not just what happens when the owners are satisfied that they’re quietly winning the never-ending battle between labor and management. The players aren’t settling for peace, and they shouldn’t: not now, not ever. The second they stop pushing, the owners are going to scale back more and more. For proof of the truth of this statement, I can direct you to the literal six-part series written in this space titled “Labor peace is a lie.” It’s a concept I’ve put just a little bit of thought into.

So, I don’t blame Passan or Rosenthal or the many others for thinking that this could have all been avoided if the two sides were interested in different things. It’s just that those wishes are nothing but that: they aren’t rooted in the reality of Major League Baseball or the Players Association or labor or management or literally anything in the history of clashes between the two in or out of baseball. They are rooted, however, in the idea that labor peace is something to strive for, despite the anti-worker sentiments of the phrase.

That shouldn’t be a surprise, though, given how anti-worker the time and place we live in is. We live in a time where unions are getting stronger, but are still weak and essentially an unknown for your average American. We live in a time where people can claim that we can’t remove police unions from the AFL-CIO, because next up will come attacks on teachers unions, since, you know, they’re both public sector unions, and people take that counterpoint seriously despite its on-face ridiculousness. Even though police unions have bargained their way into earning extra pay when they’re brought out by management to break the strikes of actual workers, like, say, teachers. Even though teachers aren’t out here protecting capital and the bosses and murdering Black people with impunity and ensuring that the poor stay that way or die. Of course, in this context, a sportswriter who has seen nothing but this supposed “labor peace” since the 1994-1995 strike is going to be, culturally, a little out of their element for this moment in time. And the league knows this is all our normal, and so, they’re happy to feed those sportswriters the doubt that feeds their unhelpful response to said moment.

Not Olney, though, that dude clearly just hates the players.

Anyway! We can all do better educating readers and other writers to better understand what it is the players are doing, what they are fighting for, and why it’s perfectly OK for there to not be Major League Baseball if the conditions aren’t right for it. It’s work on that, or be subjected, forevermore, to the incessant both-sidesing we’ve become accustomed to. And with no end in sight for the current labor battle, one that is going to stretch into 2021 and beyond and potentially keep MLB off television for significant chunks of two of the next three years, we’re going to have all the both-sidesing we can handle to fill the hours.

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