There was a good article from our good friend Nathaniel Rakich over at Vice on Friday. In it he notes — as we noted recently — that the flurry of pre-arbitration players making public objections to their contracts this spring may have been a coordinated plan. A public relations plan, aimed at illustrating how little power and thus how underpaid pre-arb players are. Rakich speculates that it may have been a union thing. I tend to think it was led by agents who are trying to make pre-arb salaries a union agenda item, but either way, there is an element to it which seems something less than coincidental.
Rakich goes on to argue that it would probably not be a good thing for the MLBPA to take their negotiation positions public. He notes how unsuccessful such efforts have tended to be in other contexts, political and labor, including in baseball. I agree with him that doing this has never been particularly effective. I’d add in an old Joe Sheehan post over at Baseball Prospectus in which, in the course of a Don Fehr career obituary, Joe reminds us that, some of those moments of the 1994-95 strike notwithstanding, neither Marvin Miller nor Fehr really ever concerned themselves with public opinion.
There’s a good reason for this. Fans do not give a rat’s behind about the players. At least not outside of what they do on the field. Based on 30+ years of talking baseball with people and, more recently, the response to my story last week about the day-to-day stresses and headaches of players, a majority of fans don’t care a lick about players’ private lives and I suspect they care even less about their working conditions. When they play — and when they perform well — they are heroes. When they negotiate the terms of their employment they’re spoiled millionaires. Even the ones who don’t make millions. In no event do fans want to hear about their lives and problems. They got problems of their own, pal.
In contrast, fans are more inclined to listen to ownership’s side of things. They do this because, in the mind of the fan, they’re more like owners, even if their net worths and life experiences are billions of dollars and universes apart. Like owners, they are invested in the team logo and the city and the colors and they were there before and after the current roster was signed. On a secondary level, a lot of fans play armchair owner or GM a lot of the time, thinking about team-building and roster construction from ownership’s point of view. There are likewise many who, as a matter of personal politics and disposition, simply don’t care for unions too much and don’t give a rip about workers, especially if they already make a decent living. In the aggregate these categories of people, many of which overlap, make up the vast majority of fans. They, at least subconsciously, consider players to be labor costs and potentially problematic ones. They’re not going to cotton to public appeals from union heads or athletes who claim that they are being wronged by their beloved baseball teams and aren’t going to have much patience for arguments that they deserve a better shake.
Maybe going public regarding a negotiation has a chance of working if the audience for the appeal is undecided, but baseball fans are not undecided. They’re hostile to the players’ labor position, either actively or passively. Which means that the players have one thing — and one thing only — at their disposal if they want to accomplish their goals in a given negotiation: solidarity. That is the lesson of baseball labor relations from the 1960s into the 2000s. Marvin Miller may have been as smart as a whip and Bowie Kuhn may have been dumber than ten dogs when it came to this stuff, but Miller would’ve gotten nowhere if he hadn’t convinced the players to stand together and be willing to walk out of work if necessary, regardless of what the public had to say about it. That was the power of the MLBPA. That is the power of any union, really.
Over the past decade or so, there has been something less than the usual solidarity among players on a host of issues. This is understandable. For one thing, they have not faced the sort of existential threats from ownership that they did in the past. The pocketbook issues are mostly good. No one is trying to impose a salary cap or take free agency away. If the threat is not great the calls for solidarity are not particularly compelling. The issues that have come up such as drug testing, the draft, international signings and free agent compensation necessarily divide the players because not all are affected in the same way. Clean players vs. juicing players. Veterans vs. rookies or amateurs. The owners have, quite understandably, used these divisions, and the p.r. resources the have at their disposal, which includes a largely pro-ownership baseball press, to get concessions that have been good for them.
Will the same thing happen this year? It’s impossible to say now what the 2016 CBA negotiations will bring. We don’t know yet whether there will be points of negotiation significant enough that the union might consider striking over them. If there are, however, a public relations approach will likely be fruitless. The only thing that will get them what they want is good old fashioned union solidarity.
I wonder if they still have the manual for that.