Labor Forecast: Another Win for Players

As Major League Baseball's labor talks grind toward another midsummer showdown, observers are wondering whether the Major League Baseball Players' Association will extend its 30-year winning streak over the owners. It will. The owners have already blown their best chance to win concessions from the MLPBA.

The owners' negotiating strategy has long been apparent. They planned to propose sweeping changes, including greater revenue sharing and a luxury tax, along the lines recommended by Commissioner Selig's Ribbon Economic Panel, then refuse to budge from that position. This would ultimately force the players to choose among three undesirable options: strike, accept the owners' terms, or allow the owners to declare a bargaining impasse and impose those terms even without an agreement.

But for this strategy to succeed, the owners had to work quickly. In all baseball labor disputes, the owners have the edge during the offseason and spring training, when they can declare a signing freeze or lock out the players at little or no cost to themselves. As the season progresses, the players' leverage increases: a mid- to late-season strike costs the owners their biggest crowds and threatens the postseason, when they get most of their TV money.

The collective bargaining agreement expired after the 2001 World Series. That created an opportunity for the owners. A clever leader would have opened negotiations before the 2001 season, complete with public-relations blitz about how, for the fans' sake, the owners and players needed to reach a new deal before the current CBA expired. But Bud Selig is not a clever leader.

By starting serious negotiations as early as possible, the owners would have scored PR points while also putting themselves in a position to declare an impasse soon after the CBA expired. That would have allowed them to implement the revenue sharing and luxury tax proposals contained in their then-current offer -- and that, in turn, would have fundamentally altered the parties' bargaining positions. Instead of operating under the terms of the expired CBA until a new agreement could be signed, the game would have been played under the owners' rules.

The owners squandered this opportunity. Although last spring MLB's Paul Beeston met secretly with Donald Fehr on numerous occasions to discuss a possible labor deal, Commissioner Selig abruptly pulled the plug on those talks in mid-June. It's hard to declare an impasse when you're the side that walks away from the bargaining table.

The owners then wasted the entire offseason battling over contraction. Selig apparently thought that the threat of losing 50 major league jobs would pressure the MLBPA into making concessions. Instead contraction angered fans, infuriated lawmakers and brought nothing from the MLBPA except a grievance which won't be resolved until midseason.

Moreover, the owners' contraction strategy was so poorly executed that they handed their opponents the issue needed to block it. Six weeks before the contraction announcement, a MLB lawyer told the Twins to exercise their lease option for 2002, confident that the courts would never force the club to play out the season in the Metrodome. Oops. The lawyer who advised the Twins -- Bud Selig's personal attorney -- is now the owners' chief labor negotiator.

Reeling from the contraction fiasco, the owners agreed not to lock out the players or impose new terms before the 2002 season and asked the players for a no-strike pledge. Noting that the owners' promise did not extend to the 2002-03 season, the MLBPA declined.

The MLBPA is expected to set a strike date during the All-Star break. As in 1994, that date will likely be sometime in early August. But unlike in 1994, the owners don't have the resources to fight a protracted battle.

Forbes reported two years ago that in the event of a strike or lockout, many of the owners' bank loans will immediately come due. As former Commissioner Fay Vincent recently told the Washington Post, "The day the players go out, the banks will give baseball one week to make a deal. And Don [Fehr] knows it. He has all the cards."

Welcome to baseball as usual.

Copyright © 2002 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the June 2002 issue of Boston Baseball.

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