Take a look at the guy above. That’s Michael Weiner, who today was approved by the executive board of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) to be the union’s new executive director. So instead of seeing the dour face of Donald Fehr, his predecessor, during all those uncomfortable press conferences that are sure to be in our future, you’ll be looking at him.
In many ways, Weiner is the anti-Fehr. He favors jeans and sneakers, and has a reputation of being a facilitator. One area they have in common: Both are brilliant attorneys (Weiner graduated from Harvard Law School in 1986), and both are fiercely devoted to protecting the interest of the players.
Yet those of us who fervently hope to avoid the labor strife that led to a series of strikes or lockouts during the reign of Fehr and union founder Marvin Miller have reason to be encouraged.
Fehr, who has been head of the MLBPA since 1983, announced in June his intention to resign, and the union’s board picked Weiner as his replacement. In October, the players voted 1,055-4 to approve Weiner, and the union’s executive board, meeting today in Scottsdale, Ariz., voted unanimously to approve the selection.
Weiner has spent the past two decades working for the union, most recently as its general counsel. When the management side needed someone to talk to reasonably about an issue, they sometimes bypassed the often contentious Fehr and his occasionally bombastic sidekick, Gene Orza, and went straight to Weiner.
“When I’ve had issues to be resolved and needed assistance from the other side, he’s the guy I would pick up the phone and call,” John Westhoff, a Detroit Tigers vice president and former lawyer in the commissioner’s office, recently told the New York Times. “He’s not so dogmatic where every issue had to go to arbitration. When you try to reach an amicable settlement, he’s the guy to go to. I’m very hopeful that will translate in his new position.”
Weiner has developed a strong working relationship with management’s lead negotiator, Rob Manfred, which bodes well for the upcoming negotiations on a new basic agreement in two years. The current agreement expires in 2011.
Baseball has not had a work stoppage since 1994, successfully negotiating new contracts in both 2002 and 2006. In both cases, Weiner was a leading negotiator.
There are some unsettling signs as the end of the current contract nears. Some owners have made veiled comments about the need for a salary cap – the same issue that led to the lockout in 1994, when the World Series was canceled. A salary cap is an issue on which the union will not bend, whether Fehr or Weiner is in charge.
Red Sox owner John Henry earlier this week came out in favor of an overhaul of the revenue-sharing system: “Change is needed and that is reflected by the fact that over a billion dollars have been paid to seven chronically uncompetitive teams, five of whom have had baseball’s highest operating profits,” Henry told the Boston Globe. “Who, except these teams, can think this is a good idea?”
Among other things, Henry endorsed a payroll tax for heavy spending teams, and a salary floor for all teams. Here’s a segment of the Boston Globe article:
“If the Yankees and the Mets spend a billion dollars plus of their investment dollars to build new ballparks, they should be allowed to keep their revenues from that,” Henry wrote. “But if they want to spend $200,000,000 annually on payroll, they should be heavily taxed directly on that – and if they want to spend more than that, they should be even more heavily taxed. So should all clubs who spend heavily on payroll – to the extent necessary – to bring the system into balance.”
Here’s how Henry’s system would work:
“It’s a very simple approach in which payroll tax dollars replace revenue sharing dollars and go directly to the clubs that need revenues in order to meet minimum payrolls that should be imposed on each club receiving revenue. Further, players would have to be protected with a guaranteed minimum percentage of overall revenues. This would be a very simple and effective method in reducing top payrolls and increasing bottom payrolls with no tax on revenues,” Henry wrote.
Weiner, on a conference call this morning, said Henry’s proposal was discussed at the executive board meeting, and he clearly indicated that salary floors are going to be a hard sell. He said the owners have periodically made that proposal, starting in 1994, and the union has always been against it — for two reasons, he said. The first is “we really believe in markets.” The second, and more compelling: “It’s a bargaining reason. Players historically have suspected that a request for a salary floor is a precursor to a request for a salary cap. You know the position this union has had historically on salary caps.”
The owners will likely seek institution of an international draft and a mandatory slotting system for draft picks. Weiner said today that the union is more than willing to work on the former, but has always staunchly opposed the latter, calling slotting just another word for a salary cap.
The players’ side, meanwhile, has suspected the past two years that the owners are colluding to keep down salaries, and could file a grievance on that issue later this winter. Asked what he thought of the slow pace of free-agent signings so far this winter, he said: “Yeah, we’re concerned a little bit. It’s been a little slow, but it was a little late starting, by virtue of when the World Series ended.”
Weiner went on to say that the union would be interested in discussing with the commissioner’s office changes in the postseason format that accelerate the playoff calendar, as well as changing the opening divisional round to a seven-game series rather than the current five-game series.
“A properly constructed postseason schedule could accommodate three seven-game series but still have it encompass a shorter period of time than there was this year,” he said.
The players and the owners, by nature, have a contentious relationship, and the next bargaining session could be a whopper, particularly if the owners push for a salary cap. However, I am encouraged that Weiner’s management style will be less hostile than Fehr’s, and that he will seek common ground with the owners. And that bodes well for keeping the game from halting for a work stoppage.
(Photo by Associated Press)