Baseball Players Association Is Rarest of Things: A Strong Union

Akito Yoshikane

Boston Red Sox player David Ortiz listens as Michael Weiner, then General Counsel to the Major League Baseball Players Association, speaks to the media regarding his positive test for a performance enhancing substance, on August 8, 2009, in New York City.

Baseball fans are accustomed to watching battles on the diamond field. But showdowns between the players’ union and the Major League Baseball have been, at times, as contentious as America’s pastime itself.

As a new collective bargaining agreement looms in the near future, Donald Fehr, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, stepped down this week to make way for his successor Michael Weiner, who is preparing to face club owners to negotiate players’ next four-year labor contract, which would begin at the start of 2012.

A Harvard educated lawyer who has spent most of his career in baseball, Weiner was unanimously confirmed Wednesday as the union’s new executive director at the annual board meetings this week in Scottsdale, Ariz. The 47-year-old will be the fourth person to lead the MLBPA since its formation in 1966, a union that has ascended to become one of the most powerful in all of sports — not to mention the rest of the U.S. economy.

Weiner was recommended by Fehr upon announcing his retirement in June. He will inherit a slew of challenges, ranging from issues surrounding union missteps in drug testing, draft rules, scheduling, revenue sharing and perennial calls for a salary cap.

But if history is an indicator, the odds of an auspicious result are on Weiner’s side, as he joins a union that has gained significant improvements for the players over the years.

Until the MLBPA was formed, teams had clout over their players. A reserve clause” in contracts held employees to their team amid an era when salaries and benefits were sparse and work conditions were substandard. But under the guidance of their first executive director, Marvin Miller, an economist with the United Steelworkers of America, the union was able to negotiate the first-ever collective bargaining agreement in professional sports.

The agreement advanced the minimum salary of $6,000 (that lasted for two decades) to $10,000. The agreement paved the way for the current free agent system that has led to exorbitant multi-million dollar contracts, a scorn of smaller market teams but the envy of players in the NBA, NFL and NFL where cap restrictions are stricter.

Under Fehr, average salaries continued to grow from $289,000 to nearly $3 million during his tenure 26-year tenure. But negotiations with the league were tense. Fehr led the union through a two-day strike in 1985, a month-long lockout in 1990 and a seven-and-a-half month strike that cancelled the World Series. The tensions also stemmed from Fehr’s distrust of the league after an arbitrator had ruled that owners colluded with each other to hold player salaries low during the mid-80s.

Weiner, however, is expected to have relatively warmer relations with the MLB than his predecessor. He joined the union after the collusion disputes and may not harbor the same league suspicions as Fehr. But after being unanimously approved by the players union yesterday, he responded to the spectre that owners will be more forceful for the 2011 negotiations via AP:

If there are owners who misjudge or underestimate the resolve of the players this time, I think they’ll be met with the same surprise that owners of the past have met with when they misjudged the resolve of the players.

With a penchant for Chuck Taylor shoes and blue jeans, he is popular among players for being a plain speaker. Yet he has also been described by contemporaries as the smartest person they have ever known.”

Weiner has a lot on deck, most notably, helping to restore the image of baseball after a series of steroid revelations by the game’s marquee players. There have been increased calls for drug testing, but the union has spurned them, citing civil liberties issues.

But it’s clear that the union has grown to be recognized as a legitimate entity. Weiner recently told the New York Times:

I would say there has been a greater acceptance by the owners and by the commissioner’s office of the role the union has in the game and in the business.

When I started, I think there were substantial factions of people on the management side who begrudged the union or viewed the union clearly as an enemy. At this point, there is a respect or an understanding that the union is a part of the picture and a part of the picture that can be positive.

Ultimately, it might be hard to sympathize with an organization that has helped make millionaires even richer. But it’s worth noting that the union has been a boon to the players, giving them more autonomy to negotiate their own rights as employees of Major League Baseball.

Whether working-class or financially privileged,that’s a lesson all American workers should take to heart.

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Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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