Major League Baseball season 2020, already on a hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, now does not risk happening at all, thanks to the team owner’s demand that players accept draconian salary cuts for the season to begin, when it can happen.
The league and its owners insist that the proposal they unveiled Tuesday, which would require some players to waive more than half their salary, is a serious pitch intended to avert further difficulties. But the details of the plan make it clear what the owners are really looking for: They want to use the pandemic to finally break the MLB Players̵
It has been the owners’ goal since the day the union was recognized in 1966, and they have continued to wage hidden wars against players throughout the period of relative labor that followed the fallless 1994 season, when players organized a 232-day strike – and even canceled the World Series. – over the owners’ demands that they agree on a hard ceiling on wages.
Now, the owners are essentially making a big effort against a trade union that has turned out in the last quarter century to a body that rarely exerts itself in addition to a pronounced press release. The owners are playing the 2020 season, and the future of the game, on the idea that MLBPA will not strike back as it did 26 years ago – and that fans will take the billionaires’ side if players do.
The MLBPA should call their scam, even if it means there is no baseball this summer, and even though it means that 2020 will be an ugly memory in baseball history as the strike-shortened 1994 season is often portrayed.
The owners’ claims are obviously ridiculous and have been for weeks. They initially asked the players to agree on a temporary (so they said) income model that would serve as a de facto salary capability. After players rejected that idea, the league returned on Tuesday with a proposal to lower wages on a sliding scale, with the highest-paid athletes receiving a bigger hit than their less-paid teammates.
The proposal would require Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, the game’s best current player, to take a roughly 70% pay cut while assuming the health risk of playing baseball in a pandemic, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan. Other players would face minor cuts according to a plan that is obviously meant to share the union’s rank and file from its superstars.
But the details don’t matter as much as the overall truth: Players would, overall, transfer significant amounts of the money they contractually to billionaires who own baseball teams.
There is no reason to believe the owners’ cry for poverty. MLB has refused to open its books to support its claims of imminent financial ruin, and the league’s owners have a deep history of hiding the books and producing blue tape reports to support their troublesome money claims. (Baseball is still there all these years later, despite the owners’ alarmism in the 1990s about what would happen if they were to actually pay players what they are worth.)
There is no need to take the owners’ side. Despite common misconceptions, lower salaries for players do not mean cheaper tickets, beer, sausages or souvenirs for fans. They just mean fatter pockets for the owners.
The players have already agreed to lose wages for whatever part of the season they can play, a more generous remission than they had to. Owners never return to players under contract after revenue exceeds expectations to offer them more money. Why should players who signed agreements not require owners to maintain their end of these deals now? The players have every right to tell the owners that they will just play if the owners respect the prorated wage agreement, the two sides reached in March.
Players seem increasingly tired. Two weeks ago, Tampa Bay Ray’s pitcher Blake Snell said the reboot of the season wasn’t “worth it” if players had to make big pay cuts, and New York Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman tweeted, then quickly deleted Tuesday’s plan for a 2020 season unlikely. The union, for its part, said it was “extremely disappointed” in the offer.
However, owners are convinced that half-baked pitches like this one will ultimately work because the antagonistic version of MLBPA is mostly a relic of the past.
Over the past decade, MLB owners have been able to constantly erode the opportunity for free agency and the larger salaries that come with it. They have armed baseball’s statistical revolution to prioritize ruthless efficiency – which has proven how undervalued many players are, while contributing to the management’s obsession with younger, less expensive talents. They have manipulated rules for younger players and revenue sharing throughout the league to further control costs and they have diversified revenue streams with pouring cash to digital media bets and ball parks, giving themselves even less incentive to spend money to win.
The union and its collective bargaining agreements have done little to prevent owners from pushing players to the top, bottom and on each side. As a result, the share of league revenue that goes toward player salaries has dropped to modern lows, even without the dreaded salary overrun that players once went outside the plan to prevent. In 2018, the average MLB salary dropped only for the fourth time in 50 years.
In other words, baseball has become something of a microcosm of the American economy, with an ownership class that rewrites some rules and bends others to hoard as much money as possible at the top. MLB’s obsession with efficiency came directly from Wall Street and elite business schools whose big data fixing helped create an economy that benefited the wealthy but “endured” middle class – a dynamic that probably sounds familiar to the free agents who have had to endure unending excuses for why they can’t find jobs.
Faced with the sudden economic crisis caused by the pandemic, massive companies wasting excess cash on stock repurchases and meaningless acquisitions, instead of preparing for an inevitable downturn, have forced their workers back to work with little regard to their health or well-being, sometimes twisting the definition of “essential” beyond all logic to do so.
MLB owners, whose relentless short-term vision created their own sustainability problems, now feel the opportunity to do the same, especially when President Donald Trump is pushing the idea that professional sports are “essential.”
MLBPA’s reluctance to fight stems largely from the 1994–1995 strike, which was blamed on athletes who held the view that they were spoiled rich guys playing a children’s game, not workers in a work system who left uncontrolled would have dealt with them in the same way it does workers everywhere. And the union is right that it will never win a public relations battle with the league office, especially at a time when 40 million Americans are recently unemployed.
But it doesn’t have to. Instead of trying to win over the public, MLBPA should take lessons from other workers who are as tired of their bosses as baseball players should be.
Over the past two years there has been an increase in trade unions and strikes, a wave of activism that has now intensified during a crisis that further reveals how little big companies are taking care of their most important employees.
From McDonald’s to the media, workers have decided they must fight, and many of them have won. At some point, whether it realizes it or not, the baseball union will do the same. And if there is no season 2020, it will not be the players fault.
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