The past offseason and the early part of spring training was noteworthy for the volume of complaints leveled against Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining system as well as the way players are underpaid early in their careers. Outfielder Dexter Fowler, who didn’t sign with the Cubs until late February, criticized the QO system which certainly led to a longer period of unemployment for players such as himself, Yovani Gallardo, and Ian Desmond. Meanwhile, pre-arbitration players Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Brad Boxberger, Kevin Kiermaier, and Jake Odorizzi each refused to sign his respective contract to protest how the system unfairly underpays those not yet eligible for arbitration.
The system certainly could be improved to better protect the players. But labor rights in baseball are much better now than they used to be, and that isn’t a call for complacency. Rather, it’s to put the situation in historical context. Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times published a wonderful piece on Monday which looks at the origin of the labor movement in baseball.
As Shaikin explains, when Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale refused to report to spring training to protest their pay 50 years ago, the terms “free agency” and “salary arbitration” were not yet in the Major League Baseball lexicon. But their protest led to better pay, and a labor movement began. Not long thereafter, Marvin Miller bolstered the players’ union into a force to be reckoned with. He helped negotiate the first collective bargaining agreement and would later institute the arbitration system to resolve disagreements between the team and its players. When an agreement couldn’t be reached, the players went on strike in 1972, the first strike in baseball history.
Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, who inked a seven-year, $215 million extension in January 2014, is thankful for what Koufax, Drysdale, Miller, and countless others have done to improve the lives of ballplayers. The lefty said, “We’ve come a very long way. We owe a lot to our former players that fought for our rights.” Speaking about Koufax, Kershaw said, “He’s the type of guy who knows what’s right and would fight for it.”
Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully remarked about the first union, Koufax and Drysdale. “No one, to my knowledge, had ever thought about two pitchers teaming up.”
The players’ union still has plenty of work to do. While many consider baseball players to be overpaid, they are getting an ever-decreasing percentage of total revenues, as Nathaniel Grow illustrated at FanGraphs last year. Even compared to the NBA and NFL, MLB players get the smallest cut, percentage-wise.
While baseball players are protected by one of the strongest unions in the United States, many others are without. According to federal data, 20 percent of workers were union members in 1983, but that number was only 11 percent in 2015. Though the data shows union members earning over $10,000 more annually than non-union members, Americans have been privy to increasingly hostile rhetoric against unions, leading to a record-high disapproval rate of unions in 2009. Perhaps we could take a thing or two from baseball history before it’s too late.