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'
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
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
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
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
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
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
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