Ending 26 years of “labor peace,” Major League Baseball is in the midst of a national lockout. With league owners failing to address the core contract issues raised by the Major League Baseball Players Association, the previous collective bargaining agreement expired at the beginning of this month. In an open letter to baseball fans, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred stated, “Despite the league’s best efforts to make a deal with the Players Association, we were unable to extend our 26-year-long history of labor peace and come to an agreement with the MLBPA before the current CBA expired. Therefore, we have been forced to commence a lockout of Major League players, effective at 12:01 am ET on December 2.” Has the league made its “best efforts” to bargain in good faith? Were wealthy team owners really “forced to commence a lockout”? It sure doesn’t look that way…

In this episode of Working People, we’re joined by Alex Bazeley and Bobby Wagner, hosts of the podcast Tipping Pitches, to break down the labor politics in today’s MLB and what the lockout means for players and fans alike.

Additional links/info below…

Kellogg’s strike links/info below…

Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive at freemusicarchive.org): Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song”


Transcript

Maximillian Alvarez:    Hey guys. This is Maxmillian Alvarez, your intrepid podcast host. We’ve got a great episode for y’all today and we’re going to jump right into that in just a second. Before we do, though, I wanted to hop in really quick with an important announcement.

So as y’all know, 1,400 workers for the cereal giant Kellogg’s have been on strike since Oct. 5 at plants in Omaha, Nebraska; Battle Creek, Michigan; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Memphis, Tennessee. A couple of episodes back, I had the honor of talking about the strike with Dan Osborne, who has worked at the Kellogg’s plant in Omaha for 18 years, and currently serves as president of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, or the BCTGM local 50G.

Now, we’ve been wanting to keep coverage up on the Kellogg’s strike here on the podcast, but we’ve obviously also been racing to cover as many of the other crucial labor struggles as we possibly can with the people that we have, i.e. me and Jules. Both of us have other jobs. But if you’re looking for more coverage on the Kellogg’s strike, you should definitely go and check out the work that I and the amazing journalist, a friend of the pod and host of the show Morning Riot, Mel Buer, have been doing over at The Real News Network.

So Mel has written two excellent articles from the Omaha picket line, and just last week I got to follow up on my last interview with Dan Osborn by interviewing Dan and Larry Spencer from the United Mine Workers of America. And I’m especially proud of that interview. Larry is serving as vice president for District 20 of the UNWA, which represents the 1,100 coal miners who have been on strike at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama since April. You guys may remember Larry. I think he made an appearance in one of the podcast episodes that we did on the strike that was hosted by our wonderful friends down there at the Valley Labor Report.

But I thought that it was really important to get folks from the Warrior Met strike and the Kellogg’s strike on the same interview. And I thought that Larry and Dan did an incredible job breaking down where things stand with each of these important strikes. We also discuss the ways that companies like Kellogg’s and Warrior Met have been weaponizing business friendly-courts to try to break strikes.

Anyway, my point is that if you like the Working People interview that I did with Dan Osborn a few episodes ago, and you have been hoping for more coverage from me and others on the strike, we’ve been keeping that coverage up over at The Real News. And we’ve linked to those pieces that I mentioned from me and Mel Buer in the show notes here.

So you may be asking, all right, why are you bringing this up before an episode on the lockout that’s currently happening in Major League Baseball? Great question. So the reason that I’m recording this intro is to let y’all know that we’ve got a very exciting announcement to make. So after talking with Mel, we were in complete agreement that it is so important that we not only report on strikes and other workers’ struggles, but that we stay committed to them and do our part to keep the pressure up, keep the solidarity going, and see these struggles through to victory. And that is why Mel and I are teaming up to co-host a six hour live stream fundraiser for striking Kellogg’s workers this Friday, Dec. 17, from 6:00 PM to midnight Eastern Standard Time.

Now, we’re going to have folks from a number of the local plants that have been on strike talking to us on the stream, and we’re going to try to get folks from each plant if possible. We’re also going to talk to local union presidents and we’re going to have some other special guests swinging through, and it’s going to be a lovely, fun, solidarity-filled six hours.

With the holidays approaching, with the weather getting colder, and with Kellogg’s threatening to replace all of the workers who are on strike, we need to do all we can to show as much support as we can for these brave workers and help them keep the fire burning. So mark your calendars, this Friday, Dec. 17, from 6:00 PM to midnight Eastern Standard Time, come hang out with us, help us spread the word, and donate what you can.

So we will be streaming the live stream on the Working People YouTube channel. And there’s a link to that in the show notes for today’s episode. And we’re also planning to cross-stream on Twitch and Facebook. We will be posting regular updates on the Working People and Morning Riot Twitter feeds throughout the week. So if you want more information, that’s where you should go to get it. But I’m also going to be checking back in later this week right here on the Working People feed to give you guys all the exact details about where you can donate, what the schedule is for the live stream, and all that good stuff.

We were hoping to have all of that set in stone by the time today’s episode came out, but we’re also trying to do everything as democratically and transparently and aboveboard as possible and that means things can move a little more slowly. But Mel and I are working with the different union locals at the four strike locations to set up a single donation pot on GoFundMe. I know GoFundMe takes a cut, but everyone recognizes it. People recognize it as legit. So that’s probably what we’re going to go with.

Then we will post how much money we raise at the end of the live stream. And we will disperse 100% of the funds raised equally to the different strike funds for each of the union locals. Again, we will be blasting the link to that GoFundMe on our social media feeds, but I’ll also check in with y’all later this week to let you guys know exactly where to find it. For now, I wanted to hop in to let y’all know that this livestream fundraiser is happening this Friday, Dec. 17, from 6:00 PM to midnight Eastern Standard Time. And we’re really excited about it. And we know that our great communities are going to show up, show out, and throw all of our love and support behind striking Kellogg’s workers and their families.

All right. Well, thank you all so much for listening. Thank you as always for supporting the show. And I hope to see y’all on the stream this Friday. And now without further ado, onto today’s show.

Bobby Wagner:      My name is Bobby Wagner. I am one of the co-hosts of Tipping Pitches, a baseball podcast about labor and the lovely sport of baseball.

Alex Bazeley:      And I’m Alex, I’m the other co-host of Tipping Pitches, and we’re really excited to be here today.

Maximillian Alvarez:     All right. Well, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class toda. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and supported entirely by beautiful listeners like you.

So as y’all heard there at the top, we got two special guests on the pod, Bobby and Alex from the great podcast Tipping Pitches, which everyone should check out. And as you probably guessed, given that Tipping Pitches is about baseball and labor, we’re going to be talking about the MLB lockout that’s going on right now. I’m sure that folks, even if you’re not sports fans, you’ve probably heard that Major League baseball has, for the first time in 26 years, reached this point of a lockout after the league and the Players Union could not come to a new agreement earlier this month.

And we’re going to dig into that because I think it’s really important. As we’ve talked about many times on this show, workers come in all shapes and sizes, working in all sorts of industries. And there’s a lot of really important stuff on the table right now in Major League Baseball that I think all of us have a vested interest in. But I also know that there’s a lot of stuff in the weeds here that we probably don’t know about. And for that reason, I’m exceedingly grateful to Bobby and Alex for coming on the show and helping us navigate this.

So guys, I want to turn things over to you and ask you to walk us through the contours here of how we got to this point, to the point where Major League Baseball players have been effectively locked out of their workplaces. What is that issue between the union and the league owners? What those issues, I think, mean about the state of Major League Baseball right now, which I know is something that you talk a lot about on your show.

I think to kick us off, I actually wanted to read just a little section, and we’re going to link to this in the show notes, but the MLB commissioner, Rob Manfred, after the lockout was announced he wrote an open letter to baseball fans that is a very typical shitty boss kind of letter, really just trying to blame the union for everything. And I thought this would give us a good jumping off point. But here’s a section that Manfred has in his open letter to baseball fans.

So he writes, “Despite the League’s best efforts to make a deal with the Players Association,” [coughs] bullshit, “we were unable to extend our 26-year-long history of labor peace and come to an agreement with the MLBPA before the current collective bargaining agreement expired. Therefore, we have been forced to commence a lockout of Major League players, effective at 12:01 AM Eastern time on Dec. 2.”

So why don’t we start there and just unpack this for a second. Because actually, I should have asked this at the top, what is a lockout? What constitutes lockout and was the league “forced” to do that? So let’s start there and then maybe zoom out to talk about what the hell is going on right now.

Bobby Wagner:      The lockout is effectively management, in this case Major League Baseball, one of the four major sports leagues in America, telling their players, their workers, not to come to work anymore. The language in Manfred’s letter as you’re alluding to is… Let’s say filtered through a certain perspective. Forced to institute a lockout, legally, there’s nothing saying that they needed to institute this lockout. They’re more than welcome to continue on with next MLB season with no new contract. The terms of the old collective bargaining agreement would stay into effect had they not instituted this lockout, but that would allow the players the opportunity to, at some point during the 2022 baseball season, to go on strike.

And this is what happened with the last major work stoppage, or the last work stoppage of any kind in Major League Baseball, which was the 1994 and 1995 player strike, which is largely thought of as the most contentious at the time. It was thought of as the most damaging work stoppage in the sport’s history. But what really happened and what Manfred is not really saying in between the lines here, what really happened is that the players went on strike and the owners all ran to their corners scared, because they realized that the players had the ability to just completely put an end to their product midway through a season and they don’t want that to ever happen again.

So they instituted the lockout now during the off season to avoid giving the players that ability to withhold their labor midway through a season because they know that that provides them a certain amount of leverage that a lockout during the off season when not as many people are paying attention, not as many people are trying to go to baseball games, it just won’t allow the players to have as much leverage as they did in ’94.

Alex Bazeley:      Yeah. And it’s important to know that while the strike among fans was relatively unpopular, there’s been a lot talked about, about how baseball’s attendance and general interest in the sport dipped after the ’94 strike that went into the ’95 season. It canceled the World Series in 1994. The players were still able to actually make a lot of tangible economic gains through that. They managed to wring out of owners these proposals that would in theory increase competitiveness, increase parity across the sport.

    And the reason we are at a lockout today, Dec. 9, 2021 is because over the last decade owners have spent a lot of time, they’ve fought tooth and nail to roll back a lot of those economic gains. The value of the sport is rising. We’re seeing revenues that are historically high and players aren’t necessarily receiving a share that is commensurate to those rising revenues. So that’s really why it is that we’re here today talking about this.

Maximillian Alvarez:    So let’s talk a little bit about those gains that were made or progress that was made on the player worker side, and basically what led us to this point. So for folks who are listening who maybe are just armchair fans of Major League Baseball, or even for folks who don’t watch baseball at all, I think you probably know a little bit about it. It’s an important topic for us to discuss because I think that you get a lot of similar prejudices against professional athletes that you do against other types of workers that people associate with very wealthy industries.

Just to give one example off the top of my head, I remember recently I was interviewing museum workers here in Baltimore for The Real News Network to talk about a unionizing campaign that workers at the Baltimore Museum of Art have been engaged in over the past year. And one of the things one of those workers told me was very comical, but I thought he really hit the nail on the head where he was like, people think because we’re working at these venerable institutions and that I, on a day to day basis, am handling pieces of art that are worth more than I’ll ever make in a lifetime, that somehow that translates to me making an exorbitant amount, when that’s just not the case.

Obviously, we know that it’s a bit different in professional sports because you do have a certain tier of players who do make a significant amount of money, but one of the central issues, as I understand it, that’s being battled over right now between the union and the league, is that lack of parity, that vast difference between say new players in the league and during that period before they reach free agency, where you could have a star player at a college or something who’s making shit and is generating a ton of value for the franchise, but is basically on a junior contract until they get to go up for free agency.

So this is all to say for folks listening right now, what do you think are the basic prejudices or misconceptions that we need to get out here on the table in order for us to understand why it is important to talk about labor issues in professional sports like Major League Baseball?

Bobby Wagner:      I think the phrase that gets thrown around a lot, which now comes with its own discourse cycle, is millionaires versus billionaires. And we’ve spent a lot of time driving ourselves up a wall unpacking what that really means, why that is such a core tenant of baseball fans, why that is so tied to the idea of American capitalism, and why certain fans want to side with ownership, and why in 1994 certain fans were calling players spoiled millionaires who weren’t grateful that they were playing a children’s game.

There are frustrating assumptions made about how every player is making $40 million per year. That’s not true. And before I get to what you’re talking about, some of the players not able to hit free agency until a certain amount of time and what the union is fighting for, I think one of the things that Alex and I always come back to is that it’s important to have labor industries, despite the fact that baseball is a very unique a very singular labor industry, it’s an antitrust exempt sport that is making it billions and billions of dollars, there aren’t that many people that actually make it up. And the only places that the revenue can go are to players or owners or stadium workers who have their own unions that are separate from this exact labor discussion.

And so when we’re talking about the idea of millionaires versus billionaires, like Alex said, the owners have been chipping away at that piece of the pie and taking more of the revenue, the revenue that is being generated from the fans who come to support players. So it becomes a frustrating conversation to have because the owners get to enjoy this relative privacy, this relative unknown, this relative black box about how much money they’re actually making from baseball, because their contracts aren’t reported. They don’t have their public salary data on espn.com.

And it’s hard to tell how much owners are making but we know, given that we’re reading between the lines that we see these TV contracts for billions of dollars, we know that the owners are taking home, it’s very good to be in the business of baseball. And if you want to just use the principle of presumption, you can say that every time one of these 30 teams comes up for sale there’s a line of 10 billionaires out the door trying to buy it because it’s so valuable.

Alex, I’ll let you break down what the union is trying to gain back to push the ball back down the field a little bit more, as to what the owners have chipped away at.

Alex Bazeley:     Yeah, definitely. One of the key topics that was agreed upon in the ’94, or in the collective bargaining agreement following the ’94 strike, at the time it was called the luxury tax, now it’s called a competitive balance tax. And basically what it is, is if you are a baseball team that is running a payroll of $200 million or $250 million or whatever it may be, that after a certain threshold that money is going to start to be redirected back to smaller market teams, teams that might be running $50, $60, $70 million payrolls. You get taxed on every dollar you go over this threshold.

At the time it was conceived of as a way to, again, increase competition across the league, level the playing field a bit. And at the outset, that actually was what happened. For a few years there around the turn of the century, team payrolls, team economics actually evened out a little bit. And since then owners have started treating this as a salary cap, as a way to pay players less money. And the revenues that have been coming into the sport over the last two decades have increased at almost double the rate that this tax threshold has gone up.

So what players are looking for is to raise this threshold, to say teams have the money to spend, they should be spending it on their on-field product. But also they want to, like you said, take care of those players who are at the bottom of the rung, the players who are just coming into the league who are making pennies compared to the biggest stars in the league. They come in at five, $600,000 contracts, and what we’ve seen in recent years is that more and more of these players are the most valuable players in baseball right now due to gains in technology, due to gains in conditioning. The best players in the league now happen to be the ones who are making the least amount of money.

And so, one of the key issues that the Players Union is fighting for is how do we actually make sure that the players, the brightest stars of the sport, are actually getting paid based on what they are bringing to the table? [crosstalk]. Yeah, go ahead.

Bobby Wagner:      Sorry, Alex, to cut you off. I think an important historical baseball economic structure to understand here is that younger players used to make the least because they were the biggest gamble. When guys were coming up, you didn’t know if they were going to be as good. And then they would get paid more once they had served their time. Once they had gone through and gone all the way up the ladder and they’d become stars with their teams, teams would retain them and teams would pay whatever the market value said that that player was worth.

And more and more, teams have seen that with cost controlled younger players, because the players cannot get to free agency until they have served in MLB for six years. So, whereas in another job you can change however often you want to, in baseball, for your first three years you make the league minimum if your team chooses to pay you that. They can choose to pay you more, but they don’t do that on their own accord very often. And then in your years three through six you can go through this process which is called salary arbitration where you submit one salary number, the team submits another number, and then a neutral arbiter decides which number is more reflective of that player’s actual value. And then after six years you can go into free agency.

Well, what we’ve seen happening is that teams don’t want to pay the middle class and free agency the way that they used to because have big data, they have analytics that tell them that it’s not as cost effective as it is to just go look for another younger player who you’re paying the minimum salary. So that is one of the forces in one of these handshake agreements that the Players Association is trying to rectify because teams have stopped holding up their end of the bargain when it comes to that respect.

Alex Bazeley:      And speaking to billionaires versus millionaires, a vast majority of players are making less than a million dollars a year. And quite a few players are making under $100,000 a year. So there are a lot of players that are on the fringes of the sport that might get shuttled back and forth between the Major Leagues and the Minor Leagues, which has its whole host of issues on its own regarding labor. But that’s, I think, why our gears get ground when we hear that turn of phrase, because not only is it an unfair characterization of the dynamics in the sport, it’s just not right. It’s not factual in any way.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Well, and this is again why I think it’s so important for us to talk about this right now, because in a lot of ways… We haven’t said the term yet, but what we are discussing is something that has come up a lot of times on this show, especially this past year, especially during a number of the important strikes that have been happening in different sectors of the American workforce, which is the fight against two-tier employment systems and two-tier wage systems. Listeners will remember that this is what Kellogg’s workers, 1400 of them at plants in different states, are going to the mat for.

We spoke to Dan Osborne who is the BCTGM local 50G president down there in Omaha. He’s one of these, I guess you would call it, first tier workers. He would be like one of those veteran players. He’s been working at the Kellogg’s plant in Omaha for 18 years. He has worked his way up to the middle class life that he believes every worker there should have. But one of the big issues there at Kellogg’s is that the new hires are put into this second tier where, like you’re describing with baseball players, you’re there for four, five, six years. You’re making significantly less, you have significantly fewer benefits. You’re supposedly going to be cycled into the first tier after so many number of years.

But like what you guys said that made me think about this was these companies know the score. They’re not dumb. What they’re calculating is like, well, you could squeeze a whole lot of value and a whole lot of labor out of newer workers who are put into that second tier. If only a few of them are actually going to make it to that first tier, you’re really just lying to them and saying, oh yeah, put in your time and then you’ll get brought up to this first tier where you’ll be making the wage that you should be making and you’ll be getting the benefits that you should be getting. And yada, yada, yada. That’s all just for show. People know that it’s like, well, no, you’re just going to constantly be cycling in fresh bodies into this lower tier, knowing full well, like Amazon knows, that a lot of those workers are never actually going to make it to the first tier, and that’s by design.

But this was also at issue in John Deere. This was that issue with, geez, practically every strike in some form that we’ve talked about. Heaven Hill Distillery. It’s an issue in academia between tenure professors and adjuncts and so on and so forth. It’s everywhere, including in professional sports. And yet, as you guys said, that way that we see professional sports is we only see the top earners and we assume that everyone is at that tier, and that’s very much not the case.

I wanted to ask a quick question about that is, what does that actually mean for the sport itself? How does this sort of labor arrangement translate to the kinds of things that fans see on a season to season basis? Does that make sense?

Bobby Wagner:       Yeah. I think that’s a very good question. It’s very well phrased. And I will also add that – Alex alluded to this too – But there is a third tier in Major League Baseball – And you can maybe even say a fourth tier – Which is Minor Leaguers, which are actually not represented by the MLB Players Association. So they do not have the protections of any collective bargaining agreement or the union at large. And what we’ve seen owners do with that freedom of how they can treat those workers is we’ve seen them lobby Congress to exempt them from minimum wage laws.

So these are the type of hawkish people on the capital side that we’re talking about here when we’re contextualizing the labor conversation in this industry. These Minor Leaguers are making $10,000 a year and asked to be at facilities all year around but being called seasonal workers. Just recently, a run of organization within the Minor Leagues with outside advocacy groups has led to Major League Baseball agreeing to provide housing for Minor Leaguers because many Minor Leagues were sleeping in their cars or sleeping three or four people to one bedroom because they couldn’t afford their own leases. But these are the types of owners that we’re talking about. These are the types of people on the capital side that we’re talking about in this discussion.

How it relates to the actual sport and competition and everything like that is what you talked about with Amazon or with John Deere or whatever, they don’t expect these people to get to that top tier. That’s what happens in baseball. They don’t expect to keep these players on their roster when they start to become more expensive. I’ll give the Tampa Bay Rays as an example.

This is a team that talks about itself as a small market team with very limited resources. Their owner famously has the lowest net worth, allegedly, of any owner in baseball, which is still just south of a billion dollars or depending on how much you actually value the Rays franchise that day, just north of a billion dollars. And this is a team that makes $85 million a year just in TV rights from their local TV deal. But they run a payroll out there of between $60 and $80 million per year on players. Because what they do is, after these guys hit that first tier, after these guys hit free agency, they just let them walk or they trade them.

And so what that means is that fans of the Rays can never expect to have a player play their whole career with the Tampa Bay Rays. And it starts to become this feedback loop of, okay, now hawkish labor practices are actually bad for the game because the player that I love, the player that my kid grew up rooting for, the player that I grew up rooting for, played more than half their career on a different team because their owner just didn’t want to pay to retain them. And it has more trickle down effects in terms of competition as well.

Alex Bazeley:       Yeah. As you just said, we’ve seen decreased levels of competition across the league both at the top and the bottom. The bottom tier teams, the ones who are maybe in the lower third of payroll, don’t have a lot of incentive to go out and make a big splash. Especially when their payrolls are being subsidized, as I mentioned earlier, by this luxury tax, these big market teams that are willing to go out and spend money. So they’re happy to rest on their laurels a little bit and trot out a team of young 21, 22, 23-year-olds who may or may not be at the height of their game at that point. But it doesn’t really matter because they’re able to keep costs down.

    And meanwhile, at the top end of things, these rich teams like the Dodgers, like the Red Sox, like the Yankees, have been able to get away with saying, we’ve reached the amount of money that we are willing to spend. Because of this tax on overages, on spending above $220 million, we’re done. We can’t spend any more money. And it has meant that it dampens the market for the rest of the players. Because if the Yankees aren’t willing to go out and spend whatever it takes to sign the game’s biggest star at the moment, Mike Trout or Shohei Ohtani or Gerrit Cole or Max Scherzer or whoever it is, then the rest of the teams will take a cue from that and say, well, if the Yankees aren’t going to spend $30 million on this guy, then I don’t need to either.

And that’s why we’ve seen in recent years, for the first time in history, player salaries have actually started to go down. The contracts that are being handed out, in total the amount of money that they’re making has been going down in the last couple years because owners have wised up to this fact that they can get away with… We’ve talked on our show about the C word, collusion. And while that brings to mind 30 people in a back room twirling their mustaches and saying they’re not going to pay players, it doesn’t even have to be that nefarious. Because these rules that are in place effectively encourage teams to sit on their hands when it comes to spending on players.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Man, and you just see how the other parts of that system interconnect with all of that, just the feeding of young talent into the MLB through beefed up college programs. You mentioned that’s another tier, as we talked about Major League Baseball, we talked about Minor League baseball, we got to talk about college baseball and college athletics. This is something that I know Working People listeners have asked us to cover and we are planning to do a deeper dive with multiple episodes on the NCAA next season. So just a heads up to all you listening out there, we are working on it. It just didn’t quite come together this season. So keep an eye out for that.

But you add that into the mix, then if you’re an owner you’re not necessarily thinking about the one Mike Trout who might land on our team. You do what all bosses do, which is you learn to see your workers as replaceable, as just warm bodies to cycle in and out of… Sure, some are going to be better than others, but as you guys were saying, if you flood that labor market enough and if you play the numbers enough, you essentially come to decisions where it’s like, well, yeah, we may not get the next Mike Trout, but if we have enough eager young players who are climbing over each other just for a chance at their shot, we can guarantee that we’ll be able to get something for less. And you chase that thread for as long as it will go, here we are.

And so we could genuinely talk about all of this for a much longer time. And, spoiler alert, we are going to actually be doing a bonus episode with Bobby and Alex for the show. So if you guys enjoyed this conversation you should definitely subscribe because we’re going to have a followup convo very soon. But also you should go check out their podcast, because as you can tell from our conversation they know their shit, and they have a really lot of great conversations on the show, a lot of great guests.

So I just wanted to thank you guys again for coming on. And by way of rounding out, I wanted to ask what your sense is of where this is going. We are in the off season, I think I’ve been seeing a lot of different sports writers, beat writers, saying this could drag out for months. We don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen, but to give listeners at least a sense of what they should be looking out for and what sorts of bullshit they should be sniffing out over the coming weeks and months. I wanted to ask, what do you see happening to resolve this issue, or where do things stand right now?

And also, if we could connect that back to where we first started, because I thought you guys made a really great point about this is the first time in 26 years that you’ve had a major, what did, what’s his name, Manfred say? After 26 years of labor peace. So we’ve ended that labor peace after 26 years. A weary peace.

But 26 years ago in the nineties, that was a radically different time in this country. That was when I was growing up as a deeply conservative person in Orange County. We used to go watch the Angels play in Anaheim, right up the road. There was a very different vibe when it came to labor, not just in professional sports, but if teachers went on strike it was like, oh, you ingrates, you’re greedy, you don’t care about the kids. You just want more money. It was a time in this country with the .com boom and the real estate bubble and stuff where more and more people saw themselves as would-be members of that owner class.

The American dream still seemed possible to a lot of us. And a lot of us were really looking at labor issues, if we even saw them, we were seeing them through that lens of consumers who were being inconvenienced by the games not happening or the store being closed. That seems to be quite different now in our current era of labor unrest. More and more people who have been struggling in greater numbers to make ends meet, for many reasons that we don’t have to go into right now. But I think that the fact that so many people around the country have been supporting the strikes that we’ve been seeing. The fact that so many people have been behind the unionization efforts at places like Starbucks is really incredible.

So something is definitely changing in the American psyche. I wanted to ask how that plays into the current lockout. So there’s a lot there. Take what you will. And just your final thoughts on where this is going and how this situation is different from 26 years ago.

Bobby Wagner:      Yeah. I think it is definitely very different from 26 years ago, though I will say baseball is uniquely positioned. The MLBPA, the union that represents the players, they are uniquely positioned in that the viewership, the fans of baseball, are much older than most sports, much older and even, if you can believe it, whiter than a lot of other sports. So they do have a larger hurdle to overcome, and which is why you don’t see a lot of, or as much public messaging as you would see for a different union in a different industry.

I think that Alex and I, we debate amongst ourselves a lot on our show actually how much opinions about these things are actually changing. But I do think that this being the first work stoppage, that the end of the labor peace that Rob Manfred so eloquently laid out in his letter, that that’s happened during the social media era I think is an unknown for the owners’ side. And I guess for the player side as well, if they are split on their messaging, it’s a very tough challenge to organize a bargaining unit of 1,200 players or so or thereabouts who all come from different parts of the country and all have different feelings about the way that baseball should be and all have this very, very, very intense and passionate relationship to their work because they’ve crafted their entire lives around it. And there’s only so many people who can actually do what they do.

So there are a lot of big challenges when it comes to organizing that group of players. I definitely think that fans are much more knowledgeable about what goes on. And despite the fact that we don’t know as much about how much owners are making from baseball, I think that most fans have a better idea of the fact that Major League Baseball as an entity is very financially lucrative, and there are not going to be teams that are going out of business the way that they said that they would be in the nineties or had to move teams out of certain cities because they were not financially viable or whatever else.

So I’m interested, candidly, to see how that plays out. The one thing that I keep coming back to is this idea that fans are very frustrated with the way that ownership has operated with regards to competition, that these teams are not trying their hardest to win the World Series, because fans are very passionate about seeing their baseball team win. And when they see that owners are not putting their financial might behind putting the best team on the field, that can cause resentment from fans. And that is much more in the benefit of the players than the owners in the long run.

The idea that a lot of these players through their unique talents then garner generational and life changing wealth, versus how owners don’t need the money, that this is just a side business venture for them, I think it’s much more pervasive than it used to be, and definitely much more pervasive than it was during the 1994 strike or some of the labor strife in the early 2000s. But it is an unanswered question. I would guess, personally I hedge it to be, I don’t think that this will be resolved much before February, which is when MLB spring training is currently scheduled for, and it might push the season back a little bit. But I think that it will be resolved because some of these larger, huge fights like a salary cap or the inclusion of Minor Leagues or Minor Leaguers’ treatment or earlier free agency, I think that they will ultimately kick those down the road to the next CBA fight. Alex, do you feel differently?

Alex Bazeley:       No, I think you’re spot on. That was effectively what happened in the last CBA that was negotiated five years ago, these two sides kicked the can down the road and decided that… [Punton] talks about changing the competitive balance tax or revenue sharing or any of these big ideas. And I think that you’re right, that most likely… It’s important to know that the two sides are really far apart right now. The players are asking for somewhat radical demands, at least in the context of these discussions that we’re talking about. They’ve seen how the tides have been changing over the last decade or two and they’ve decided that it’s time to put up a little bit more of a fight when it comes to getting their piece of the pie.

It was a really interesting drawn out moment last year in spring of 2020, the year the world stood still. And obviously, Major League Baseball and its players had to decide how, if at all, they were going to have a season. And there was this really long drawn out month-long fight over what that would look like, what the conditions would be under which players would be willing to go back and actually play amidst a global pandemic. And the owners were fighting pretty hard to say, we’re not going to pay you the salaries that you maybe would’ve gotten otherwise. We might do some sort of prorated system. The sides were really far apart and ultimately they didn’t even come to an agreement. Rob Manfred, the commissioner, just instituted a 60 game season and they played that out.

But what you saw was I think the tides started to change a little bit as far as fan sentiment goes, because the players were somewhat savvy in their public messaging. And at a certain point, they all started to come out and say publicly, hey, just tell us when and where to play. We are happy to play. If you pay us what you said you would pay us last year or the year before or whatever we are happy to show up and play, because we want to play baseball. And the owners couldn’t necessarily come to the table in good faith and meet those demands. And as we speak, there’s still a grievance that was filed by the Players Association over that very issue.

But as a result, I think you saw a lot of fans start to say, yeah, maybe the owners aren’t necessarily the good guys in this situation. Yeah, it might be billionaires versus millionaires, but the billionaires are the ones who are fighting tooth and nail to make sure the season doesn’t happen unless it happens on their terms. And so I think that was a really key moment in setting up the fight that we’re at right now, because the players gained some of the confidence I think that they needed to really go into this fight headstrong, willing to fight to the very end for these economic gains that we’ve been talking about.

So I’m interested as well to see how things play out because this all happens behind closed doors. We obviously have very little in the way of intel of what the current proposals are or how long this might drag out. Again, I think that what we’ll end up seeing is an agreement that is probably somewhat similar to the last agreement that the two sides came to. But there’s a lot at stake right now. The owners have billions of potential dollars in revenue and TV deals that are on the table in this negotiation, and the players see that. They recognize that as leverage. So we’ll see. But come February, if there isn’t a deal that has been struck, I think that’s the time when fans should start to wonder when we actually will see games.

Maximillian Alvarez

Editor-in-Chief

Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
 
Email: max@therealnews.com
 
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