In CBA talks, all that matters is what’s said behind closed doors

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My latest for Baseball Prospectus took a look at the growing whispers around the ongoing collective bargaining occurring between Major League Baseball and the Players Association. It’s behind BP’s paywall for subscribers, but I can give you the gist of it and a quote before we dive in a little further:

…we’re just starting to see the game really begin. We’ve had silence other than a few leaks, but as the deadline moves closer, and a deal remains unsigned, the whispers are only going to intensify in both number and volume. The PA likes to keep quiet, as mentioned, only speaking on the nature of private negotiations when forced to by MLB’s inability to ever stop complaining to the press, and MLB, for all I complain about with regards to their intent, absolutely knows how to utilize the media to share the story they want to be told. Maybe a deal will be signed by the deadline. Maybe it won’t! The fact we’re seeing little bits and pieces of veiled threats start to show up in tweets and in stories right before the World Series, with around five weeks to go before the current CBA expires, makes me think that someone significant on MLB’s side isn’t as confident as Mark Shapiro suggests they should be, though.

Basically, we’ve gone from near-silence on the state of negotiations between the two sides to having executives like Blue Jays’ president Mark Shapiro share that commissioner Rob Manfred is confident a deal will be reached by the December 1 deadline, while anonymous reports suggest that a work stoppage is imminent because the two sides are too far apart to come together in time. While I personally think a lockout is a potential outcome of these talks, it’s worth pointing out that things probably aren’t at the point where that’s the likeliest outcome. A lot depends on how aggressive the owners are still willing to be after a pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and how much the players are willing to fight for their own long-term gains, too, after suffering some short-term losses. That a lockout is even a possible outcome, however, shows how much different these CBA talks are than the ones we’ve been used to for some time now.

We know that the economic proposals that MLB has submitted, to this point, are lacking: they seem designed more to make for splashy, memorable headlines that can be pointed at when talks have broken down than they do for actually solving any of the players’ concerns or problems with the game’s current broken economics. It’s likely that the core economic issues are also being pushed aside until the end of talks, with everything the two sides can work toward agreement on happening first. I don’t have direct knowledge of where the negotiations are on that point, but that’s just how bargaining tends to work: and in a year where the players are actually pushing for major changes — instead of little tweaks as has been the setup for the last couple of decades — then it’s safe to assume the economic stuff has been mentioned but not seriously contended with just yet. Or they’re just starting to get into it, hence the sudden leak about a work stoppage being on the way.

What’s said publicly at this point doesn’t really matter. Tony Clark and the PA like to keep things quiet when it comes to negotiations, and Manfred is always publicly saying that progress is being made and things are fine, even when they’re obviously on fire like they were last year during the pandemic talks. It’s far too early in the process for the public sniping of collective bargaining past to occur: right now, MLB’s focus is wholly on presenting a confident face that says they not only believe a deal will be reached, but that they are convinced one will be signed prior to the deadline. It’s likely an act — nothing they and their reps do in public is unintentional when it comes to labor and spending and everything in that realm — so they can say, if there is a freeze or a lockout, that they were always working towards ensuring there would be baseball in 2022 for you, the fans. Just like with the leaked economic proposals, just like with their constant whining to the media in 2020 during pandemic negotiations, just like during, well, the entirety of the union vs. owners framework that’s existed for nearly 60 years now.

That MLB feels the need to do this, and that there are even whispers about a potential offseason freeze and a spring lockout, are actually positives, though, despite how many people you’ll see begin sentences on the matter with, “no one is rooting for a work stoppage.” If a work stoppage is what it takes in order for the players to get a fair deal, then yeah, I’m rooting for a work stoppage, why would I not be? Strikes are a vital tool for a union, as is the threat of one, but the CBA expires at a time that means a lockout is the more likely outcome if the two sides do not have a deal and the new season is on the horizon. A union can achieve the same goals they could with a strike through a lockout, however, by simply waiting out the owners and staying strong just like they were the ones who initiated the work stoppage. Why would you not be rooting for that, if that’s what it takes? If you’re not pro-player, you’re pro-owner, whether you try to be agnostic or above it all or not. And we already know what happens when the owners have all the power: that’s why you need a union to contend with them in the first place.

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