The MLBPA’s Strategic Error




Shayna Sigman


            Over the past several decades, the MLBPA has arguably been the most successful labor union in the United States. Thanks to victory after victory (and status quo maintenance), major league baseball players enjoy protection under the most favorable collective bargaining agreement in professional sports.

Unfortunately, the MLBPA leadership has confused the value of having a vast arsenal of legal rights at one's disposal with insisting on enforcing a right simply because it can. This is clearly the case in the union's decision to veto the Red Sox' proposal to "restructure" Alex Rodriguez's contract.

With three years of losing records and last place finishes behind them and seven years - and $179 million - remaining to be paid in the future, the Texas Rangers desperately wish to rid themselves of A-Rod's onerous contract, even at the price of losing the AL MVP. The Boston Red Sox, fighting eighty-five years of Yankee oppression, would be happy to add Alex Rodriguez to its existing offensive juggernaut line-up, in exchange for Manny Ramirez and some contractual restructuring. And Rodriguez himself, eager to play in meaningful games after June, had agreed with the Red Sox on these revisions.

Not so fast, said the MLBPA. The collective bargaining agreement prohibits players from contractual "restructuring" or "revising" that amounts to reducing. A player's contract can only be changed if it acts to benefit the player, and the union defines "benefit" in purely financial terms. Finding that the changes to A-Rod's contract acted to reduce its value, the union has denied Boston's proposal to alter the contract, effectively killing the deal and frustrating both the Red Sox and Rangers.

The Commissioner is livid; for some, this fact may only serve to justify the union's decision. Though Selig has indicated that he will not challenge the union, the comments of MLB attorney Rob Manfred suggest that MLB takes issue with the MLBPA's interpretation of the term "benefit." In a world where some players will sign for a discount to play for a home team, winning is yet another premium, a benefit, with value to the player. Perhaps A-Rod has discovered that it would be worth millions of dollars to be able to play October (and maybe even November…although this is still the Red Sox we are talking about) baseball again. Who is to deny him this benefit?

Nonetheless, the union interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement seems more faithful. The provision against contractual "restructuring" without providing reasonably equivalent value to the player protects players from teams that would force them to accept reduced pay. Creative interpretations that permit the term "benefit" to be understood outside a monetary context could wreak havoc on this protection and, thus, appear contrary to the union's rights under the CBA.

And so, the MLBPA had the legal right to deny the Red Sox' proposal. That established, the MLBPA decision to exercise this right was utterly flawed. The proprietor of this site has argued that the MLBPA was justified and had to avoid setting the precedent of allowing players to reduce the value of their own contracts. In the name of Chicken Little (or was that Grady Little?), would the sky really fall down if Alex Rodriguez is allowed to forfeit money that he is contractually promised?

Waiving its right to protest the Red Sox-Rangers-A-Rod deal would not commit the MLBPA to approving any other salary "restructures" in the future. Any other attempts would still have to come before the union, and the union could have approved this arrangement without damaging any presumption against reduction agreements.

The decision to allow this particular deal to go forward would only have had positive effects for the players association. First, in a legal world that is reluctant to force unwilling employees to perform services they are contractually obligated to do, the MLBPA would have been acceding to the wishes of its own member, Alex Rodriguez, and permitting him to pursue the employment that he desires.

At the same time, revising the A-Rod contract is unlikely to harm the salary structure for the rest of the union membership. In the three years that have passed since A-Rod signed his ten year/$252 million contract, it has become clear that this contract was an aberration. It did not set the market for superstars (which continues to hover in the $15 million/yr range), and, therefore, revising it seems irrelevant to the going rate for major league players. 

Last, in an era where fans increasingly despise the union and "greedy players" as much as they do "greedy owners," the MLBPA had a bona fide opportunity to demonstrate to the media and public at large that it is not an organization fixated solely on maximizing the amount of money that it can get for its own members at the cost of all else. And in this regard, the union failed miserably. There is being right, and, then, there is being right. Perhaps the MLBPA has won too much in the past to know what is truly right.


Prof. Shayna Sigman is one of the world’s biggest Yankee fans and clearly has no reason to want A-Rod on the Red Sox, but still believes the MLBPA screwed up here.


Copyright © 2003 Shayna Sigman. All rights reserved.

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