‘Conversation’ and ‘engagement’ will not solve MLB’s labor dispute

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You would think that being one of the most successful baseball writers with one of the largest platforms going would mean that ESPN’s Buster Olney had any idea what he was talking about when it comes to labor issues, but you would be wrong. If that seems harsh, consider this tweet from Wednesday morning:

The most surprising/appalling element of baseball’s labor situation over the last 6-7 years is the stark diminishment of engagement and conversation. It costs nothing to talk.

I bounce back and forth between wondering if Olney is purposefully obfuscating by making everything a both sides issue, in order to take the owners’ side without explicitly saying he is, or if he just doesn’t understand what he’s going on about, generally. There’s a third option, though, and it’s just that Olney believes himself to be a dispenser of sage wisdom, who is above the fray. dril’s “the wise man bowed his head solemnly and spoke: ‘theres actually zero difference between good & bad things. you imbecile. you fucking moron’” tweet, given flesh. The way Olney operates makes a lot more sense this way: his righteous indignation when you call him out for stances that trend heavily on the pro-owner side, his calls for you to read the entire body of his work before making any kind of claim on what position he has taken on any topic. Olney thinks he knows better than everyone, and that everyone would just be better off if they listened to him, even when he is making vacuous statements that have no basis in reality.

Let’s pretend he’s right, then. What would the two sides gain here if they just sat down and talked, which, as you have just read, costs nothing to do. What are they going to talk about? Surely, how to move past their current issues so that the regular season can still start on time or damn close to it. What are the ways they could go about doing this? Well, the league could lift the lockout that they imposed in December, and the two sides could then continue to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement while playing under the status quo of 2016-2021, until a new deal is reached. Here is my best guess at how this conversation would go.

Union: We have our differences, that much is clear, but if you lifted the lockout, we could start the season on time, and continue to work through this agreement.

MLB: No.

I’m being a bit glib, but that’s what it boils down to. The two sides have vastly different goals, and I don’t even mean in terms of what percentage of the league’s revenues should go to the players vs. going into the pockets of the owners. Philosophically speaking, they are not on the same page: the players are hoping that closing loopholes will create more choice for them, and allow many issues of the 2016-2021 CBA to, well, stop being issues. The owners want the exact opposite: they want more space to shuffle the blame for their own behavior elsewhere, and less choice — less power — for the players. The 2016 agreement was one constructed with an attitude of keeping a good thing going, one the PA thought was negotiated with a partner acting in good faith. That is not what MLB is, however, and it is not what the 2016 deal was meant to accomplish for them. For the league, the previous CBA was the next step on their quest to strip the players of more and more of their economic autonomy, leaving them with little to bargain away as the noose tightened around their collective neck. It was the league bargaining with their fingers crossed while their hands were behind their back, setting up a series of loopholes to be exploited so that they could get away with trying and spending less. You see what they do to the players they do not need to bargain with, and it is precisely what they wish they could do to the players they must come to agreements with.

Now, for the 2022 CBA, the league wants to codify all of those loopholes and the exploitation, giving retroactive justification to their past behavior while allowing themselves to further weaken the players’ choice and earning potential, for all save the top stars they could not possibly lower the lifetime earnings of. The union, on the other hand, is trying to roll back the problems of the 2016 CBA, and wants to force the league to take this all seriously and actually bargain in good faith. The league did not do so in 2016, they did not do so during the negotiations for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and they certainly are not doing so now, when they wasted months and months to get to the expiration of the CBA and a lockout, where they now mostly just sit around waiting for the players to crack so they can impose what they want to, like they have in the past.

What, exactly, are you supposed to accomplish in conversation when you are so diametrically opposed in this way? People like to think that bargaining is about starting at the extremes and meeting in the middle, but that’s not necessarily the case. It is often about respecting the time and rights of those on the other side. There is talk about why the PA hasn’t budged from their minimum salary proposal, but it’s because they presented what they wanted to get. Yes, they could have asked to triple the minimum over the life of the CBA, as I have suggested they should do in the past, but it is likely that their side felt a tripling of the minimum (or something akin to that) was going to be a project for more than one CBA, given the gulf between the players and the league. So, they came forward with a reasonable proposal for what they wanted to end up with, and they do not plan to move off of it. That is not an incorrect way to bargain, either: the movement will come elsewhere, such as with agreeing to the concept of an expanded postseason — which, I will point out because it seems to be constantly forgotten, the PA has already done.

Calls for meeting in the middle on the pre-arbitration bonus pool proposals, or lessening the minimum salary ask so MLB is more inclined to agree with changes to the status quo, miss the point. The league and the union want fundamentally different things with their proposals, concepts that go well beyond just the dollar amounts attached to the proposals. What “engagement” and “conversation” is supposed to fix that? All that will bring about an end to the stalemate is one side blinking: it has nothing to do with a desire to or setting aside time to talk. Either the players or the league will tire of missing out on money as scheduled days of the 2022 season are missed, and then, the necessary conversation will occur.

If anyone suggesting more conversation as a solution thought about this for even a second, like, really thought about it, they would realize that calls for engagement and talk are empty, that they’re meaningless, that there’s no there there. If you need any further proof, well, we’ve all been trying to engage with Olney for years and years on all of this, and yet nothing has changed on his end just yet. If you don’t want to have the conversations because you fundamentally disagree on what the nature of those conversations should even be, then they aren’t going to help with anything. Sometimes, conflict is all you need. The league and the union are currently embroiled in conflict: when a victor has emerged, then we will have a conversation worth having.

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