Mailbag: MLBPA members, licensing, and scabs

A question on why scabs were even allowed into the league in the first place.

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.

Mailbag time!

One of the things that has come up in our internal [organization] discussions lately is how if we are able to successfully unionize where I work, every employee that falls under the proper umbrellas is required to be a member of the union (that may be a California-specific thing, but I can’t remember). That got me thinking about some baseball players who I know historically were not part of the MLBPA. Barry Bonds and Kevin Millar (aka Jon Dowd and Anthony Friese) are the two big guys that came to mind. Under what circumstances was it okay for non-union members to participate in the league though? Couldn’t those guys have signed contracts that undermine things the MLBPA was doing? Wouldn’t the union have wanted to stop those non-union guys from signing into the league?


First off, good luck and solidarity with your own organizing efforts! Second, one correction here: Barry Bonds was (and is, through the Alumni Association) a member of the Major League Baseball Players Association, but he opted out of the collective licensing deal prior to the 2004 season to pursue licensing deals on his own. It’s something that’s always been an option, but deciding against the licensing had never been done before. Which I guess is just a very Bonds-like thing. He wasn’t the first to do so in unionized sports, though: Michael Jordan, for instance, was another superstar who decided to go out on his own on the licensing side.

As far as I can tell, there isn’t an option to join or not join the Players Association upon becoming a professional, which is even more true now that there’s a minor-league wing of the union, meaning, you start receiving the benefits of membership out of the gate. Which would be like if you were hired into a union shop in the trades, journalism, the auto industry, whatever now: you’re a union member from day one if your new role is part of the existing membership class. It’s more like the Kevin Millars (and Cory Lidles, and Shane Spencers, and so on) of the world were denied union membership for their decision to scab during the 1994-1995 strike. I’m sure they would have loved to have all the benefits that being a union member brings, such as the licensing deal that players who aren’t literally Barry Bonds can’t in good conscience forego, or the ability to appear on postseason souvenirs, and so on, but the way the PA could punish them was by withholding all of this from them.

And they did still receive certain union benefits, in the same way anti-union people still get to have weekends: minimum salaries, arbitration eligibility, free agency, etc., were all still part of the lives of these scabs who did manage to make it to MLB. It’s not like they could have signed a below-minimum deal or anything, out of desperation: they still had to operate within the rules agreed to by both the union and the league. They just couldn’t have any of the other parts of the union experience.

Another way of saying this is that there’s a reason Millar and Lou Merloni have media jobs post-career, and it’s not just because They Love and Know [citation needed] the Game. It’s also because they have bills to pay. It’s not that Millar made nothing in his career — he brought in over $20 million across 12 seasons — but stretching that out forever to avoid ever working again without additional funds from licensing and such would be pretty difficult. His playing career was over after his age-37 season, it’s not like he was at retirement age in pretty much any other profession. And Merloni was done even earlier, and made about one-tenth of what Millar did, so his need for a post-career career was even more pronounced.

Obviously, MLB doesn’t mind hiring a scab for one of their media roles, and given this is being written the day after a bunch of people were rushing to credit a picket line-crossing, opportunistic, scabbing beat writer from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for breaking a transaction, there are obviously far too many in non-league media who don’t even give this sort of thing a second thought. They should, but “should” isn’t always how these things go. Even a few too many players are forgiving of the scabs: they can’t all be Mike Myers about it (the former relief pitcher, not the horror movie antagonist or star of Austin Powers), but they should be.

Anyway, the wave of scab players was something of a special circumstance: they made themselves ineligible for union membership, yes, but there’s nothing in the rules saying they couldn’t eventually make their way to the majors. The league was going to have a difficult, though not impossible, time bringing in another wave of scabs even before the near-entirety of the minors unionized — now, it might as well be impossible. And attempting to bring in replacement players, among other things, is what doomed the league’s fight back in ‘95, so it’s not exactly something they found successful. All of this is to say that those scabs were something of an anomaly, and one that might never find a repeat occurrence in MLB: there won’t be individual instances of non-union members out there now, and given how things have gone for most scabs post-career, there’s also little reason for any player to really want to go that route in the first place even if they could.

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