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Owners push back baseball union

Players up against billionaire cartel

By Mike Gimbel

The billionaire "good ol' boy" cartel that runs major league baseball has used every contract negotiation since 1976 to try to get the players back on the plantation.

Before 1976 professional baseball players, after signing an initial contract, were tied like feudal serfs to a single team for the life of their careers. They could be traded from team to team without any right to protest. Today professional players still start their careers in the aptly named farm system, as though they belonged to some huge plantation.

Even today, the pay for most professional baseball players "down on the farm" is scandalously low. Most perform for many years under difficult conditions without ever reaching the major leagues. If they do finally reach the majors, where they can make a good income, their careers there average only about three or four years.

The means by which team owners previously tied players to their teams was a lifetime contract called the reserve clause. In 1949, Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey said the reserve clause was criticized only by "persons of Communist tendencies" who "deeply resent the continuance of our national pastime." In 1976 an arbitrator ruled that these contracts were illegal and that all baseball players were to be free agents after one year.

The reserve clause was dead, but the owners have been trying to resurrect it in another form ever since.

Baseball owners have attempted to restrain salaries ever since the game became a sports industry late in the 19th century. In 1881, Albert Spalding, who owned the National League franchise in Chicago, said: "Professional baseball is on the wane. Salaries must come down or the interest of the public must be increased in some way. If one or the other does not happen, bankruptcy stares every team in the face." (John Helyar's "Lords of the Realm")

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The franchise owners have sung this same song ever since, yet no franchise has gone bankrupt. In fact, every franchise up for sale has sold for a greater amount than the previous owner paid for it.

1960s upsurge affected baseball, too

Professional baseball was not immune from the progressive upsurge of the late 1960s to mid-1970s. The arbitration decision against the reserve clause would never have happened in earlier decades; it would also be unlikely today in the current reactionary political atmosphere.

Curt Flood, a star Black centerfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, was the first player to challenge the reserve clause. In the late 1960s, under the influence of the powerful civil rights and progressive movement of the period, he refused to report to his new team when the Cardinals attempted to trade him. He lost his case and was effectively "blacklisted."

Flood's career was finished, but his action stirred the other players to begin a serious and coordinated fight to get the reserve clause outlawed.

After the owners lost the 1976 arbitration, they were forced to sit down with the players' union and negotiate a new system. The union agreed to a system whereby the players were tied to a particular franchise for six years. While this was a concession, the union was concerned at that time that if all the players were immediately made free agents, the competition for jobs might actually depress individual players' salaries.

The players' union, using the rising salary for so-called star players, has forced the franchise owners to raise all major league players' salaries. Unfortunately, the union has done little to improve the salaries for minor leaguers, other than those deemed future stars.

The minor league players have benefited from the decision ending the reserve clause, so they are also able to become "free agents" after three to five years in the minors. These free-agent minor leaguers have little or no bargaining power, however. They end up begging for a place on a minor league roster in the faint hope of reaching the major leagues. Most are simply discarded by the owners.

A few of the discarded minor leaguers try to keep their hopes alive by joining an independent league, unaffiliated with the major leagues. A few of the better minor league players, unable to win a job in the major leagues, have agreed to let a major league franchise sell their contracts to a team in Japan, where they can earn a salary far greater than here in the minors.

It's really a billionaires' cartel

Major league baseball, by a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, is exempt from federal anti-trust laws. This has enabled its billionaire owners to maintain a monopoly cartel that carves out territories and enables the owners to put up a united front against the players in salary matters.

The owners also hammer the public interest by threatening to move a franchise whenever they want to coerce a community into building expensive stadiums and giving them tax breaks.

It is no accident that President George W. Bush was until recently one of these franchise owners. Bush used his public notoriety as owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team as a stepping stone to become governor of Texas.

The team owners are referred to as franchise owners because, even though each franchise is in competition with the others on the field, major league baseball operates as a single cooperating entity. These franchises have very different money sources, just as a fast food franchise owner would have, depending on whether the location is good or bad. A franchise in a big-market location like New York City has a financial advantage over the small-market owners in terms of television contracts.

The Yankees bring in about $175 million annually from local television contracts because they play in a metropolis. Local television contracts for the smallest-market franchises might garner only $1 million to $5 million a year.

Over the years, these small-market franchise owners have wanted to take on the big-market owners to try to force "revenue sharing" of the local television income. Supposedly they need the money to be able to put a competitive product on the field. But there is no guarantee that money from revenue sharing wouldn't go into the owner's pocket, rather than for signing contracts with the better players.

While some small-market owners have made noises about challenging the big-market owners, they have always united with them to get the players to pay for this "revenue sharing."

The owners' proposal of a "luxury tax" for revenue sharing is really a back-door attempt to introduce a salary cap, which would reduce the players' ability to bargain for better salaries. This tax would financially penalize a big-market team for signing a player away from a small-market team if the total player contracts signed with a particular franchise exceeded a certain amount. The effect would chill the player's ability to negotiate a market-value contract.

In other words, the money saved by holding down player contracts would pay for "revenue sharing." The actual local television revenue would not be shared at all.

Free market versus socialism? Not!

Some progressives might be confused, since the players are demanding that capitalism function in a free-market manner while the owners might seem to be proposing a socialist solution to share the wealth. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The owners of big business have always sought "socialism" for the rich with government handouts, tax breaks and other largesse. All the players are doing is attempting to maintain the bargaining power with these powerful billionaire franchise owners that they won in the 1976 arbitration decision.

The negotiation just ended was the ninth since the 1976 decision. To illustrate how hard the owners have pressed the players' union for concessions, each of the eight previous negotiations resulted in a strike. In every negotiation the union has been forced to compromise in some manner and give up "free agency" in bits and pieces.

In the current negotiated contract, under very difficult conditions for the players and with some owners wanting to bust the union entirely, the players made concessions on the luxury-tax salary cap. But they were able to force the owners to withdraw their attempt to "contract," or close down, two franchises. They also set back the owners' attempt to impose a worldwide draft of amateur players, which would have suppressed salaries for all drafted amateurs.

Unfortunately, during these difficult negotiations, the players allowed the owners to frame the public terms of the political struggle over the contract as "millionaire players vs. billionaire owners." This put the players in a very bad negotiating situation. As a result, the owners were able to use public opinion against them during the negotiations.

The players' successful struggle to save two franchises was never used by the union. The cities involved and the millions of fans of these teams could have been rallied to the players' side had they effectively used the issue.

Even George Steinbrenner, owner of the richest franchise in baseball, has used a bogus threat to move the New York Yankee team out of the city if he didn't get a stadium on the West Side of Manhattan--which would have cost the public more than $1 billion.

The players were fighting for the fans and against the owners' ability to coerce individual cities, but you would never know it if you followed the public information available during these difficult negotiations. The owners were able to turn many fans against the players because the fans did not see how their interest was in any way connected to that of the players.

Look for new struggle in four years

The settlement just reached is for four years. The union certainly wanted a longer contract, but the owners want as many shots as possible to weaken the union. The owners did want an agreement, but they don't feel they have gotten enough. In four years, look for an even more difficult negotiation.

This agreement has not satiated the owners' thirst. One concession the players made was to not challenge the owners if they decide to "contract" franchises after the current contract ends in 2006. The franchise owners will be sure to use the threat of "contraction"--which would result in fewer available jobs and more players trying to negotiate individual contracts with fewer individual teams, causing strong downward pressure on all player salaries.

The current contract postpones this continuing confrontation for four years. The owners' success in gaining concessions in previous contracts will only whet their appetite for the next round. The greedy and overpaid owners will again call the players greedy and overpaid.

Who ever went to a stadium to watch the owners perform? The players are not only the performers, they are the product. Only under capitalism can this absurd situation exist: parasitic owners publicly complaining about and degrading the very product they are attempting to sell to the public.

The greedy baseball franchise owners produce nothing. Who needs them? What purpose do they serve? Shouldn't teams that purport to represent a community be publicly owned?

That, of course, can only happen under socialism. As long as capitalism exists, the public will be subject to the owners' greed, the owners' threats to move if they are not allowed to reach into your pockets and financially bleed the communities they supposedly represent.

It all comes down to that old labor song, "Which side are you on?" There should be just one side for the working-class public: the players' side.

Reprinted from the Sept. 12, 2002, issue of Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted under a Creative Commons License.
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