Mailbag: The length of a CBA

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As we’re in the midst of a lockout, there are surely questions that need to be answered about the state of labor negotiations and the processes involved. I’m happy to answer what I can, so please, if you have something in mind, ask away: you can send me an email at marcnormandin at gmail, respond to this newsletter email if that’s the format you’re reading it in, or ping me on Twitter.

Today’s question is on the length of collective bargaining agreements, courtesy @DJSloppyJoeM on Twitter. Let’s get to it:

“I know CBAs have typically been 5 years? Is that custom or is there some other reason(s)? Could the parties agree to a longer term? For example, if owners give concessions, can they make the next CBA 10-years to try to lessen the impact the concessions have on future CBAs?”

The five-year collective bargaining agreement is a relatively newer idea in MLB. The very first CBA in Major League Baseball — and the first in pro sports, too — came in 1968, but the first five-year CBA between MLB and the Players Association wasn’t signed until 2006, nearly 40 years later. Five years has become typical of late, with the 2006, 2011, and 2016 agreements all running for that long (those deals were signed in the years above, but didn’t begin until the following years; so, 2007, 2012, 2017, respectively), but in the past, the two sides were meeting far more often to revise what had already been agreed upon. The first CBA was all of two years long, the next three were all three years in length, the next four were four years, and the last of those actually ended up going for six years since it was forcibly renewed by Federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor until the two sides could agree on a new CBA — the two agreements that followed this period were also four years long, then it was 2006 and the time for the first five-year deal.

There is nothing stating that a new collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the MLBPA must be five years in length, as far as I can tell: things have just worked out that way, as the two sides were working through an era of labor peace over much of the last two decades, and felt less need to go to the table as often as they used to. Labor peace, of course — this is a real “say the line, Bart!” thing for me in some ways, except I do enjoy saying it — is a lie, so MLB was of course happy to lengthen the term of CBAs that they felt were giving them a clear victory. Patience was never much of a strong suit for the owners in the early days, but once Bud Selig was officially the commissioner and got all of the owners together on his longer-term, much more subtle plan for scaling back player gains, they suddenly had the patience to let these agreements linger for longer than they used to.

So, to actually answer the question: yes, MLB could push for a 10-year agreement in exchange for concessions to the union, in order to avoid having to go back to the table and maybe giving up even more down the road. In theory, this is a thing that could happen. I imagine it would be a non-starter for the union, though, for a couple of reasons. For one, they can certainly pull out some wins in the current bargaining and come into the 2022 season — whenever that begins — in a better position than they did the 2017 season, but there is much work to be done in order to close off loopholes and obvious exploitations that became all but codified in previous CBAs. Or, in some cases, actually codified. Pushing off the next negotiations until 2031 or 2032 is not appealing, because of that need to get more done sooner than that, but also because the anger and education of the current players is necessary to get said work done in the first place. A 10-year CBA could maybe bring some comfort normalcy that would be harmful to the players’ long-term motivations.

Nothing energizes a union like seeing management bargain and scheme against them, so basically skipping a generation of players in bargaining would have some negative consequences for the kind of transferable momentum they’re currently trying to build up. We already know what happens when the players get too passive and comfortable: that’s how the present-day mess began in the first place. A 10-year deal would mean too many players who remember what the 2016 agreement did to them, or who saw how the league treated them during 2020’s pandemic-shortened season negotiations, or who are currently experiencing this “defensive” lockout, wouldn’t be around as a voice to keep the newer guys in line and on point. The league, obviously, would love that, which means, basically automatically, that the players should not be for it.

Really, the players should be pushing for a shorter CBA, but I imagine this one ends up being five years, too. The owners aren’t going to want to go to the table more often than recent precedent suggests is necessary, whether they feel that this is a win for them or that they have stumbled on the path they set out on long ago, and the players would be way off the mark if they entertained anything longer than the now-traditional five-year period.


My latest for Baseball Prospectus went live on Wednesday, and it’s on a portion of the current labor battle I don’t think enough enough is being given to. Yes, the dispute that led to a lockout is about money, as these things tend to be, but at the core of it all is a more ideological dispute over choice, and how much of it players should or should not have.

Choice! Players want more choice, and it’s no wonder considering MLB continues to let various economic levers the players previously utilized fall into disrepair—the 2016 collective bargaining agreement was a real mask-off moment in this regard, but no one on the players’ side seemed to notice until after the ink had dried. They have noticed now, though, which is why the two sides are not just semi-amicably plotting the destruction of the future of the players’ organizing strength, and are instead at odds because, well, the players won’t semi-amicably help to plot the destruction of their own organizing strength.

This one is behind a subscriber paywall, but if you have a BP subscription, then have at it.

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