Last summer Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association took the unprecedented step of opening Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations over two years before the current CBA expires. Most took this as a sign that the parties are cognizant of how difficult the negotiation of the next agreement will be and how much work will be required to ink a new deal without a work stoppage.
Which makes Rob Manfred’s stance during those talks somewhat surprising. Multiple sources briefed about what occurred in those talks told NBC Sports today that Manfred took an aggressive posture, telling the union that there is “not going to be a deal where we pay you in economics to get labor peace.” Manfred also told union representatives that, “maybe Marvin Miller’s financial system doesn’t work anymore.” Those briefed on Manfred’s comments requested anonymity because they were not permitted to share the details of July’s talks. Officials from the Major League Baseball Players Association declined comment.
Those briefed on Manfred’s comments tell NBC Sports that the impression left by them was that the league plans to take a hard line with the union and is unwilling to make any concessions on the numerous pocketbook issues about which the players are concerned, including tanking, the glacial pace of the free agent market, the Competitive Balance Tax, and qualifying offers.
The comment about “Marvin Miller’s financial system” was interpreted by those briefed on the negotiations as a suggestion that the league may, for the first time in over 25 years, seek to institute a salary cap or to seek other fundamental changes to the arbitration and/or free agency systems which have been in place since the 1970s. One could, if one wanted to extrapolate a bit here, infer that it meant a desire to return to the system before Marvin Miller came on the scene in the 1960s. Which was the reserve clause. Not that any of the sources to whom NBC Sports spoke made that leap.
The comment about “labor peace” was interpreted by those who spoke to NBC Sports as a suggestion that Major League Baseball and its owners do not believe that the players are willing to approach the beginning of the 2022 season without a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in place, which would inevitably lead to a lockout by owners. If that was true — if the players did not project the solidarity suggesting that they were prepared to weather a lockout — it would greatly reduce their negotiating leverage. Sources who spoke to NBC Sports suggested, however, that they believe the league is underestimating player anger, resolve and solidarity, and said that the union has told players and their agents to gear up for a likely fight.
We’ve talked often about the current labor landscape in this space. Major League Baseball’s revenues have gone up sharply in the past several years. Player compensation, however, has declined. Players are increasingly shut out of revenue streams the league and its clubs have realized via real estate development, side ventures, and business partnerships that depend in no small amount on the playing of baseball games. Between those things and the increasing downward pressure on salaries due to the approach of modern front offices — and, according to some, due to teams colluding against free agents — the players are feeling the pinch. They thus, understandably, have a strong desire to take back some amount of economic ground they have lost in past negotiations.
If Rob Manfred’s words are to be believed, however — if they are not just early, tough guy posturing — they will not be able to do it without a fight. A fight that, if history is any guide, could turn very ugly and very painful in the next two years.