(Baseball union chief Michael Weiner talks to reporters after meeting with the Yankees last week).
It’s hard to fathom for those of us who still vividly remember the bitter, rancorous battles between players and management that marked baseball’s labor landscape for so long — eight work stoppages between the strike of 1972 and the strike of 1994 that resulted in the cancellation of the World Series.
But the reality is that baseball has become the paragon of labor peace among the four major sports. While the NFL sweats out a possible lockout, and the NBA and NHL both face perilous upcoming negotiations that are sure to be contentious, MLB has quietly begun negotiations on its soon-to-expire Basic Agreement. By all accounts, there seem to be no major impediments to settling on a new contract before the old one expires on Dec. 11 — perhaps well before. And if that happens, it would mean 16 years and counting of labor peace for MLB, marked by three successful negotiations that avoided work stoppages.
That’s staggering, and yes, deserving of praise for baseball commissioner Bud Selig. I know there are people who will never forgive Selig for the 1994 strike, but I believe he warrants serious credit for his part in forging a working relationship with the union, and for realizing the sport could simply not survive any more strike/lockouts. Selig, and the owners learned their lesson — mainly, that there was absolutely no way the baseball union, one of the most powerful in American labor, would ever accept a salary cap, and to keep pushing for that concession was suicidal for the sport. So Selig led the owners — not always willingly, to say the least — to what for them was radical new territory: extensive revenue sharing, a luxury tax, and enforcement of debt-service rules, all designed to provide more financial equity. You can argue that dangerous payroll and revenue disparities still exist between teams like the Yankees and Red Sox on one end, and the Pirates, Marlins and Rays on the other. And they do. But you can also point to competitive balance that is far greater than people realize, and, most importantly, to industry revenues that are close to $7 billion. In the face of a recession, the business of baseball is very, very good. Unlike NFL owners, they’ve decided the best strategy is not to mess with a good thing.
Everything I’ve read and heard so far about the upcoming negotiations are encouraging. It’s also encouraging that Rob Manfred, the owners’ negotiator, and Michael Weiner, who has replaced Donald Fehr as the union chief (Fehr now heads the NHL union), have developed a congenial working relationship, having gone head-to-head on several negotiations. When management and union can work together on events like the World Baseball Classic, and work out numerous revisions to the drug-testing policy without rancor, it bodes well for hammering out a new agreeement. Though Hank Steinbrenner seemed to allude to the dreaded “c” word the other day — contraction — it doesn’t appear there will be any issues on the table this time divisive enough to lead to a work stoppage. Weiner told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review yesterday, “It is not my expectation that the salary cap will be on the table. I think the owners understand what the history was in 1994, ’95 and ’96 over the cap. They understand the union’s view with respect to caps.” He added, “My sense is neither side is looking to make fundamental or radical changes in the structure of our contract.”
Owners are likely to push for an international draft, and probably for a slotting system for draft picks. The players might want some tweaks in the luxury tax rate, or some assurances that teams receiving revenue-sharing dollars don’t pocket that money. Tricky issues, but not deal-breakers.
While the NFL wages its bitter war with players, baseball has somehow found a way to reach relative labor harmony. It’s a much more pleasant place to be.