Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 15: Baseball continues remarkable run of labor peace

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 15: Baseball Continues a Remarkable Run of Labor Peace 

For most of baseball history the owners held all the power when it came to money and the labor landscape and the players took what they could get. The Major League Baseball Players Association was formally created in 1954 but for the first decade and change of its existence, the union’s only substantive accomplishment was getting a pension and benefit plan which, in hindsight, wasn’t that great a pension and benefit plan.

When Marvin Miller took over as the head of the MLBPA in 1966 there was no free agency. Players were told by ownership what they would make the following year and if they didn’t like it, tough. They didn’t have a Collective Bargaining Agreement. They had no real recourse via which to air grievances. They couldn’t switch teams. They couldn’t do what any other worker can do and shop their services elsewhere. They were stuck thanks to baseball’s reserve clause and the ridiculous Supreme Court decision which exempted baseball and its owners from the antitrust laws.

Miller began to slowly chip away at the power of the owners and, while the Curt Flood case and various arbitration proceedings are often cited high up in any recounting of baseball labor history, litigation was not the union’s only means of effecting change. Work stoppages or the threat of work stoppages were, as is the case with all unions, a primary tool in the tool box. And it was a tool used very often in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The rundown:

  • The union first struck in 1972 over a disagreement about increasing pension payouts to track inflation. The owners gave up after only 13 days and the loss of 85 games which would never be made up;
  • In 1973, with an expired CBA, the owners — having learned their lesson the year before — locked the players out during spring training to prevent them from striking once the season got underway. The big issue: the players’ demand for salary arbitration. This lockout didn’t last long, however, as the owners and the MLBPA agreed on a three-year CBA, part of which established the salary arbitration process with a neutral arbitrator deciding between the player’s salary request and the owner’s offer. No regular season games were missed;
  • The Messersmith-McNally arbitration which led to the Seitz Decision, abolishing the reserve clause and paving the way for free agency, came down in December 1975. As the winter wore on, it was up to the players and owners to negotiate the formal rules of free agency. In March of 1976 the owners locked out the players for the first couple of weeks of spring training until an agreement could be reached;
  • In 1980 — a few years into the free agency era — the CBA came up for renewal again. Negotiations dragged and the players went on strike late in spring training, canceling its final eight days. An agreement was reached on all issues except the one on free agent compensation (i.e. what, if anything, teams who lose players to free agency should get in return as compensation). That was put off a year until 1981;
  • 1981: This was a big one. The owners dug in their heels and demanded that teams who lose players to free agency get a player off the roster of the signing team in addition to a draft pick. This was nothing close to acceptable to players — it would mean the functional end of free agency — and so the MLBPA went on strike after games on June 11 and games didn’t resume until August 10. It had a radical effect on the structure of the postseason that year, as the season was divided into halves, with “champs’ of the first half and “champs” of the second half meeting in the postseason. That structure meant that the team with the best overall record in baseball, the Cincinnati Reds, did not make the playoffs, as they did not have the best record in either the first or second half;
  • In 1985 the players had a two-day strike in August related to the pension fund and to a cap in salary arbitration. It had no real effect on the season as the games missed were made up. It did, however, create a great deal of anger on the part of the owners who were getting tired of losing to the players in these battles. The Collusion scheme of the late 1980s, hatched the following offseason, can be seen as a direct response to this brief labor stoppage;
  • In 1990 there was a brief lockout at the beginning of the season as the players and owners battled over free agency,  arbitration, and revenue sharing. The lockout postponed Opening Day for a week but the full schedule was played; Finally
  • In 1994-95 it was The Big One. You don’t need a summary of it here, as you certainly know that it led to the premature ending of the 1994 season and cancellation of the postseason, dragged on all winter long, inspired the owners to try to use replacement players as a union-busting scheme and ended in failure for the owners thanks to a court decision issued by future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The next time the CBA came up after the big strike was in 2002 and, all season long, it was assumed that another strike or lockout would take place. For the first time in over 30 years, however, peace was reached without a work stoppage of any kind, albeit at the 11th hour.

Since then the league and the union have had an unprecedented run of labor peace, with CBAs being reached — and reached quite painlessly — in 2006, 2011 and 2016. Since then baseball has achieved attendance records, revenues have skyrocketed, and until recently at least, player salaries did too. In 2016 Commissioner Rob Manfred said, “I don’t believe it is a coincidence that our explosive growth began once we quit fighting with each other. It’s the bedrock of our economic renaissance.”

The general sense in and around the game is that everything has been easier with labor peace. The league’s managing of the game is simpler when labor issues aren’t mired in acrimony. Fans, sponsors and television networks are ensured of stability and can make plans accordingly. The sport’s image — tarnished greatly by the 1994-95 stoppage — has generally improved. And, obviously, a lot of money has been made. In the 2000s and especially in the 2010s, the labor wars that overshadowed everything in baseball for some 30 years became but a memory.

Of course, those memories are starting to come back. And many around the game are starting to question whether that labor peace has been anywhere near as good for the players as it has been for the owners. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that labor peace has been achieved in large part by the MLBPA ceding ground it should not have ceded. That the players may have achieved better results for themselves in the past couple of CBAs if they did not prioritize peace as much as they did and were prepared to strike for what they wanted. I’ve written a lot about this on this site over the years so I won’t recount it all once again, but know that the storm clouds are gathering.

No matter the case, when the next history of baseball labor is written, the 2010s will be considered a decade of peace. We’ll not know the ramifications of that decade of peace, however, until some time in the future.


No. 16: Baseball implements a domestic violence policy
No. 17: Cardinals Employee Hacks Astros’ Database
No. 18: Frank and Jamie McCourt Bankrupt the Dodgers
No. 19: Baseball Embraces Gambling
No. 20: The Hall of Fame Logjam
No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal