How the MLBPA betrayed the union ethic

By Travis Reitsma

I’m a union guy.  I grew up in a union family and spent parts of my childhood on the picket lines with both my mother and my father (a legal secretary and a power worker).  I’m very proud of this.  No amount of union bashing, working class oppression, or general idiocy can make me less proud of where I came from.  It’s a big reason I pursue media coverage of labour in my academic life and a big reason I am a social activist.

It is my firm belief that unions are an institutional bulwark against the ravages of capitalism, to paraphrase my supervising professor.  I don’t draw much of a distinction between everyday unions representing secretaries, power workers and teachers, and “richer” unions such as the ones that represent highly paid professional athletes.

I believe that a worker is a worker and that you’re entitled to your fair share of compensation in the face of those with more power than you for the labour you provide.  Athletes are no different.  Let us remember that no matter how rich professional athletes may be the owners of professional sports teams are much richer and carry much more power and societal influence.  As we’re seeing with the NBA lockout, players’ unions have the potential to protect those athletes who are just coming into the sport, who may be less financially stable and able to fight for their rights.  Most athletes do not come from overly privileged backgrounds.  Most come from the working class, and in the case of many (although certainly not all) Latin American players in baseball, from heavily impoverished backgrounds.  This should have some bearing on the decisions they make as a collective.

The Major League Baseball Players Association has an obligation, as a union, with all that entails, to protect the well-being of not only current Major League players, but future Major League players, and in this way, they have failed miserably.

When the MLBPA allowed Major League Baseball to instil stricter draft compensation rules and most egregiously, stricter international signing rules, they compromised the well-being of their future members.  I’m aware that the vast majority of draftees and international signees will never make it to an organization’s 40-man roster and therefore will never be members in the MLBPA, but some will.  Not only that, but the MLBPA should bear some responsibility for making sure they don’t sell the negotiating rights of amateur players down the river for their own labour peace and financial gain; that’s not how a union should behave, it’s counter to the ideology that bred them.

With a $2.9-million (on average) cap on international signings for each team, MLB and the MLBPA just screwed Latin American players out of a lot of bargaining power and therefore money.  The elite talent will still get paid in healthy amounts, there’s no question about that, but the fact is that teams will now be more reluctant to take chances on riskier players and mid-level talent will sign for far, far less.

Kevin Goldstein from Baseball Prospectus said it best on this week’s Up and In Podcast when he said that the new rules regarding international undrafted free agents were “borderline discriminatory or worse.”

The new rules essentially amount to teams taking advantage of the fact that many of these kids come from desperately poor living conditions and have no other real option other than professional baseball.  Instead of paying them in accordance with their talent (i.e. “market value”), teams will now be getting huge bargains out of Latin America from kids who will take any amount of money for the slim chance of “making it.”

The MLBPA should have stepped up and fought for the rights of these kids, even if it meant a work stoppage.  But they showed that they really couldn’t care less as long as concessions didn’t have to be made on current members.

In his interview on the same Up and In Podcast, Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan said it was up to MLB to look out for the greater good of the game of baseball and therefore the rights of these kids, but can we really trust a group of billionaires to do anything that doesn’t represent their narrow, short-sighted interest of the bottom line?  No.  People in positions of power rarely if ever show that kind of solidarity and kindness.  This is why unions exist in the first place and the MLBPA should’ve stepped up, even if it meant giving up a small fraction of their own money.

Since it’s obvious that amateur players can’t trust the MLBPA to fight for them, they should take action.  What’s stopping minor league players from forming their own union?  Since almost every draft eligible player and amateur free agent will see time in the minor leagues, a union for such players would ensure that someone is looking out for their interest.

If there’s something I have zero respect for, it’s people selling out future generations for a little extra comfort in their current life.  It’s strikes me as very strange and almost unfathomable that a union with such a rich history of fighting for future generations of ballplayers, and indeed a union that blazed trails for athletes in other sports, was the one to commit such a disservice to those who need it most.

Methinks if Marvin Miller or Donald Fehr were still in charge, the story might have unfolded quite differently.

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2 responses to “How the MLBPA betrayed the union ethic

  1. Good article. The short-sightedness (or is it selfishness?) of the MLBPA is staggering.

  2. Good article. I have been a union member most of my working life, and my observation has been that the bigger the union, the more big-businesslike they become, and thus, the principles they were founded on are often subjugated to the logic of finance and accounting.
    Back in the ’70s, I began to feel that the labour movement was losing it’s grip on solidarity when the United Food and Commercial Workers let the contract for it’s new headquarters building to a non-union contractor.

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