Baseball's Labor WarRoundup
tags: unions, strikes, baseball, sports, labor history
Peter Dreier teaches politics at Occidental College. He is coauthor (with Robert Elias) of two books, Major League Rebels: Baseball Battles Over Workers Rights and American Empire (Rowman & Littlefield) and Baseball Rebels: The Players, People, and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America (University of Nebraska Press), that will be published in April.
On December 2, 2021, Major League Baseball’s team owners locked out the players, ceasing all operations with the claim that they wanted to jump-start negotiations over their next five-year collective bargaining agreement.
It was a deliberate power play. Operations could have continued under the existing collective bargaining agreement even while the owners and the players negotiated a new one. Yet once the lockout began, Commissioner Rob Manfred, who works for the owners, refused to negotiate with the union for forty-three days. He set an arbitrary deadline for resolving the dispute and then failed to schedule regular negotiations, threatening to delay Opening Day (scheduled for March 31) and jeopardizing the entire season.
The owners’ intransigence may have weakened after a Morning Consult poll released March 8 found that 45 percent of self-identified baseball fans blamed the team owners and only 21 percent blamed the players for the stalemate.
In all, the owners kept the lockout going for ninety-nine days, until March 10, when the two sides finally reached an agreement.
Some players, like the normally soft-spoken Los Angeles Dodgers pitching ace Walker Buehler, were radicalized by the experience.
“This isn’t millionaires vs billionaires. This is workers vs owners,” Buehler, who is also the Dodgers’ representative to the players union, tweeted. “We are EXTREMELY lucky to do what we do but the numbers don’t line up. I appreciate the fans getting where we are coming from. Truly."
Baseball players have identified as workers before. In 1885, John Montgomery Ward, an outstanding pitcher, organized the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players (BPBP), the first labor union in sports. Taking their cues from the robber barons of the age, baseball’s owners maintained their profits by controlling players’ wages, their primary costs. They colluded with each other, especially through the reserve clause, which bound ballplayers contractually to their teams so they could be traded or even released without pay and prohibited them from negotiating with other teams. In an 1887 article, “Is the Base-Ball Player a Chattel?” Ward compared the reserve clause to “a fugitive-slave law.”