The MLBPA can still file a season-length grievance against MLB

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Evan Drellich published a piece at The Athletic last Friday, the focus of which was on Major League Baseball’s desire to delay the end of the current collective bargaining agreement because of the coronavirus pandemic against the MLB Players Association’s desire to… not do that. You should read the whole thing, but within was a note about the potential grievance the PA can still leverage over MLB, for putting on a 2020 season of just 60 regular season games, and that’s what I want to focus on at this time.

Here’s what Drellich had to say about it:

At some point this offseason, and perhaps soon, the union is expected to file a grievance over the league’s scheduling of a 60-game season in 2020, on the allegation that MLB did not make its best efforts to play as many games as possible. MLB was obligated to do so per a deal between the two sides from the spring called “the March agreement.” That grievance would be worth a significant amount of money — presumably hundreds of millions — and would proceed in the background, rather than halting any current discussions. The grievance likely would not be resolved for months, if not longer, but could also be settled as part of larger CBA talks, making it a potential form of leverage.

It was my understanding, at the time, that the grievance probably wasn’t going to happen, that it was mostly being used as a threat of a thing that could happen should MLB continue to argue about whether they needed to honor the March agreement on player salaries or not. That was just an educated guess, of course, and it turns out that the PA might still be, well, aggrieved, since MLB ignored their final 70-game proposal and instead relented on the March agreement and went with a 60-game campaign.

Though, like with the threat of grievance this spring, the threat of a grievance now could still be just that instead of a thing we’re likely to see. A weapon for the MLBPA to wield as MLB goes on about its debt and about how the only way they’ll be able to operate is to collectively but not colluding-ly decline as many player options as possible and then keep bids on free agents to a minimum, both in terms of the number of bids and in dollars. Times are tough, you see, which is why the players should be the ones to carry the burden here in the bad times, even if the owners never share more with the players when times are good, which is almost always.

The initial estimate for the grievance approached $1 billion, and Drellich’s present-day estimate is “presumably hundreds of millions,” so we’re not talking about some blunt instrument the PA can wave in MLB’s face. We’re talking about the kind of money that, if a grievance was filed and the PA ended up winning it, could change a number of things about MLB’s negotiating power.

The last grievance on this scale was for the three years of collusion in the 1980s, the separate penalties from what were actually three separate grievances eventually combining together into a single, $280 million payment. Plugging that into an inflation calculator says that payment is the current equivalent of $558 million, which sits somewhere between the “hundreds of millions” and the previous $1 billion-ish grievance payout estimate from earlier this year. That amount of money was so staggering that the PA and MLB, according to former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent, agreed to use parts of it to create two entirely new franchises, the Marlins and the Rockies, since it would mean more jobs for more MLB players, while MLB itself could still expand and benefit from that more than they would have by writing a check for $280 million to the PA.

Would that be the kind of situation we’d be in for again? A wave of expansion that MLB can certainly find the rich owners to fund beyond the initial investment. The creation of additional jobs for MLB’s players at a time when free agency is hurting due to a lack of teams willing to shell out cash for them, when veteran players are being pushed out of the game earlier than their skills suggest because there’s always a cheaper alternative on the farm. It’s certainly possible that could be a result, but there might only be short-term benefit for the players from it, too, at least in terms of scale-tipping. The introduction of the Rockies, Marlins, (Devil) Rays, and Diamondbacks didn’t exactly save the labor side of the game — the new teams would be run by the same kinds of people that are currently making the lives of MLB players difficult and annoying — but as far as first steps go, there are worse ideas.

This is a little less exciting as far as ways to spend money goes, but still valuable to consider. If the grievance was filed and heard relatively soon, as more of a priority case than, say, Kris Bryant’s grievance was, then the PA might have found a source of money during a potential 2022 lockout. Maybe not at the beginning of it, by any means — grievances take time to even head to an arbitrator, never mind the actual process and how long it takes for a payout to be sent — but depending on the length of the lockout itself, it could inject life into the players’ desire to continue to stand strong in the face of the owners’ demands.

The owners aren’t untouchable during a lockout, not when television deals aren’t going to pay out when there isn’t anything to air, as was the case at the delayed start of the 2020 season. The players need to get paid, too, but they have a strike fund and aren’t taking out loans to pay for renovations around the ballparks they play in, either. MLB owners could withstand a work stoppage for years and years if they wanted to dip into their own pockets to sustain the process, but these guys didn’t get ultra wealthy by spending their own money, you know? Once it comes to that, their spirits are usually broken and it’s time to talk.

So, if the timing of a grievance and its payout happen to work out where the players are getting a nine-figure infusion of cash they desperately need that they can split up among themselves, out of the already-hurting pockets of the owners who locked them out of playing in 2022? Yeah, that feels like the kind of scenario you’d want the owners to consider while they gripe about the current need to enter collective bargaining, and gripe within collective bargaining itself.

There’s no guarantee that things would play out like this in terms of timing, of course, but there is just enough possibility of truth contained there that it could scare the owners into acquiescing, or at least listening, where before they would have pre-rejected whatever was coming to them from the PA.

The owners tend to be a lot smarter, or at least a lot more subtle, than they were this past spring when it comes to screwing over the players. They overreached, though, and now, months later, the threat of a grievance still looms, and it’ll impact negotiations going forward just as MLB’s refusal to open up their books and prove there is any truth to what they claim will do.

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