Please don’t believe the things Rob Manfred says about labor disputes

This article is free for anyone to read, but please consider becoming a Patreon subscriber to allow me to keep writing posts like this one. Sign up to receive articles like this one in your inbox here.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred spoke up on the state of labor negotiations with the MLB Players Association, and it was a doozy: Per Evan Drellich’s story on the subject at The Athletic, Manfred closed the owners meetings with a speech that included this line: “I can’t believe there’s a single fan in the world who doesn’t understand that an offseason lockout that moves the process forward is different than a labor dispute that costs games.”

That Manfred is even attempting to make a distinction should tell you where things are probably headed: this is some preemptive justification, in the hopes of controlling the story before the Players Association, which is often silent on what are supposed to be private negotiations, can. Manfred says there is a difference between an offseason lockout and an in-season “labor dispute,” but there is not. The owners want to lock the players out during the offseason before any games are missed, not out of the goodness of their hearts, but to attempt to break the players’ solidarity and force them to a resolution. All the players need to do is wait out the owners in a lockout by refusing to give in to whatever the demands are that caused a lockout, and then, all of a sudden, games are being missed, too.

Manfred’s distinction only works if the players panic and give in, or the owners realize that the players aren’t going to give up their stance and then it’s the former who end up blinking first. Because yes, in that case, the lockout has “move[d] the process forward” without costing either side the revenues from games. Which very well might happen, as it has happened with every lockout to this point. As was discussed recently in this space, even the rage-fueled lockout of 1990 didn’t cause the league to cancel any games. It requires one side to give in, though, and if the economic proposals we’ve been seeing and the gap between them is any indication, the two sides might very well end up needing all winter and at least part of the spring to work this out. MLB’s proposals to this point, in particular, read to me as if they are coming from a side that actively wants a lockout to happen, because they see bargaining under a lockout after the CBA has already expired as an effective tool.

The commissioner isn’t just going to blurt out that this is the plan, however, which is why he’s speaking about how the owners haven’t made a decision on a lockout and that avoiding a labor dispute is the top priority:

“I left a pretty good job with a pretty good future to try to get this industry to the point where we can make deals without labor disputes,” Manfred said. “I don’t think there’s anybody who understands any better than I do, that from the perspective of the fans, they don’t want a labor dispute and that’s why our No. 1 priority is to make a deal.”

Speak for yourself, Rob: if a labor dispute is what brings on a better, fairer deal, then bring on the labor dispute. This focus on labor peace over everything else is an attempt to continue to slowly roll back the effectiveness of the gains the union has made for players — it’s an attempt to hew as closely to the status quo as possible, with any changes made to it benefitting the owners more than the players. Of course, framing things this way and attempting to be the representative of the fans also allows Manfred to try to bury the fact that it was the owners everyone was mad at in 2020, when it was clear their greed and a focus on trying to break the union in the lead-in to collective bargaining was getting in the way of a deal that would give the fans a regular season. After all, it wasn’t until the PA called out MLB on their two-facedness publicly that the league finally conceded on the pandemic-related negotiations and went by the terms of the deal they had already agreed to months before.

It should also be pointed out that Manfred’s attempt to differentiate between the weapon that the owners wield — an offseason/spring lockout — and what the players have historically been able to do, which is to go on or threaten to strike in a way that will cancel games, is also meant to build up some owners good, players greedy sentiment. Ah, but the owners are just trying to speed things along so we can get back to the thing we all love! It’s those work stoppages that cause games to be missed that are the real problem. Who are the source of those again?

The thing is, the players can’t even really strike anymore. In order to strike, a new season would have to begin without a new collective bargaining agreement in place, and that’s just not going to happen. The CBA expires in December, so a lockout is what is going to happen if there is no new deal in place to replace the old one at that time. And if there is still no new deal when the scheduled start date of the season arrives, well, the lockout will still be ongoing. Luckily, refusing to give in to the demands of the owners who are locking the players out works just as effectively as a strike, but Manfred still has to find a way to point the finger at the players when all they’re doing is responding to the owners’ refusal to actually figure out a fairer deal than the one that currently exists — the one full of loopholes that basically caused the Players Association to realize that they were on the losing side of these negotiations, all for the sake of the lie known as labor peace.

As I said a few weeks back, all that matters in bargaining is what’s said behind closed doors. All Manfred is out here trying to do is drum up support for, and soften the public relations blow of, a lockout brought on by the owners who, through the leaks we’ve seen, seem unwilling to actually engage the players in the spaces they are asking to be engaged on. A lockout that will be brought on by the owners who are still trying to kill arbitration all these years later, who want to pay players via predetermined algorithm, who have spent the last 20-plus years trying to smash every economic level the players used to be able to rely on while they, in turn, rake in larger and larger piles of money, and leverage their ownership and team valuations to take on low-interest loans that serve to enrich them even further.

Manfred is going to try to both sides this thing if he can’t just outright blame the players for it, and that’s all this little speech is. It’s dissembling to prepare you for what’s to come, which is the players being locked out because the owners think a lockout gives them a better chance at getting what they want, which is for nothing at all to change unless it can look magnanimous, but is actually a win for the owners’ bank accounts.

Visit my Patreon to become a supporter and help me continue to write articles like this one.