Mailbag: What is the players’ leverage in bargaining?

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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 comes from @ERolfPleiss on Twitter:

What is the player’s main leverage (lost games and revenue that hurts owners more, but perhaps is a bad public look, people always seem to blame the players first), and how can they best use it?

What is a general outline to what you think their strategy is?

The most important tool in a union’s toolbox, the one that creates the most leverage regardless of industry, is the strike. Nearly as important is management believing that you’re a threat to strike. The players can’t strike right now with the lockout in effect, so technically, they do not have their most significant tool at their disposal. However, a similar result can be achieved during a lockout, simply by standing firm and refusing to give in to the ridiculous behavior that set the lockout in motion to begin with. There is a little bit of an added bonus in this specific situation, too, since the threat of lost games and revenue might be coming from the players as well since they are not caving to the owners, but it’s also pretty clear that the whole “defensive lockout” angle the league tried to promote is a sham. It’s an offensive maneuver by management, a preemptive strike they’re justifying because someday, the players might have enacted a strike instead.

It can be a bad public look to be willing or an active participant in games being missed, for sure. But that’s no reason to avoid losing games, if losing games is what it takes to get the right deal. Standing together like this and refusing to back down from MLB’s demands that essentially boil down to giving up even more choice and codifying all of the loopholes from the 2016 agreement that brought us here in the first place? That’s the most effective form of leverage the players have. The owners seem like they’re a bit frightened at this point, because the players have not gone down so easily and things are maybe getting a bit desperate as missing spring training’s start day is effectively assured, and games are not far behind. And it’s all because, like the players did in 2020 while negotiating the pandemic-shortened season, they’ve stuck together, and not taken the bad faith bait from management that is repeatedly sent their way.

All of that being said, movement does need to be made at some point, which is why even the owners agreed to drop their arbitration replacement proposal and agree to the players’ plan for that pre-arb bonus pool. The two sides are nowhere near a point of agreement on what that pool should actually do or be for, of course, but still, agreeing to it even conceptually represents some movement. So, the players need to stand firm and not give in, but they also need to find areas in which they can agree to things the owners want, to keep the process moving along. That doesn’t mean saying yes to the owners’ awful minimum salary plan that would prohibit teams from paying pre-arb players more than what their service time dictates, or settling in at the $10 million bonus pool end of the scale when they’re currently working at $100 million. It does mean, however, things like agreeing to an expanded postseason format — which the players have already proposed an expanded edition of, one with 12 teams instead of 10. It’s not what the owners want, of course, but a $10 million bonus pool isn’t what the players were thinking of when they proposed that concept, either. They’ll move closer together on both items with time.

What making movement does, aside from protecting the union on the legal side of things — if you’re making legitimate movement, no one can successfully claim that you’re impeding progress in bargaining — is make it clear to fans that they are trying to get things done. MLB wants a larger postseason, and the union is willing to give them that — they’re willing to give fans more baseball to watch. That they have made it clear that their ultimate priority is players on the low-end of the pay scale helps, too: this isn’t Lou Whitaker showing up to a union meeting mid-strike in an expensive suit and limo.* There are fans who will claim the Greedy Ballplayers Are At It Again, and there are certainly media personalities who will chase down a chance to both sides things like they’ve found an oasis in the middle of the desert. The union can’t really worry about those people, though: they are resistant to facts, and have sided with their own desire for entertainment above all. All the union needs to focus on is convincing everyone else that a delay to the season is the right thing to do. That they would love to be playing baseball right now, but the league locked them out, and is making absurd demands that are keeping the players from doing that very thing.

*Whitaker was certainly unfairly maligned for his outfit and transportation, especially because the ‘94 strike was something the league goaded the players into in order to try to crush them, but at the same time, man, read the room. 

So yes, missing games could be a bad look, and there are people who will blame the players even if you forced them to sit and read everything I’ve written about labor relations over the last five years while strapped to a chair Clockwork Orange-style. But missing games, and losing out on the revenue from them, remains the PA’s greatest point of leverage. Money is all that moves ownership, besides control, and missing games will make them not only lose money, but also make them feel like their control is slipping. It’ll be untenable, and it’ll be what causes them to finally take bargaining seriously.

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