As Major League Baseball (MLB) and MLB Players Association (MLBPA) have failed to agree, it seems like a good time to explain what collective bargaining is, and how we got here.
To understand the situation that the MLB and the MLBA find themselves in today, it is important to understand the history of collective bargaining in the United States. At the turn of the 20th Century, the United States was in the middle of an extensive industrial revolution. The revolution changed the economy of the US, moving it from a country reliant on farming to one led by industry and big business. Industry meant more factories employing greater numbers of workers. The industry seemed to grow unchecked, with workers claiming that working conditions were unfair, unsafe, and unjust. Among other things, they demanded pay raises. Workers began to revolt and major factories faced large strikes. These workers often joined together in “unions” and demanded higher wages, better hours, and working conditions. It was very easy for the industry to fire an individual but when they joined together, it was much harder to fire an entire group (i.e., the union). These new unions attempted to negotiate with their employers and often engaged in strikes to achieve their purposes (many of which were violent). By the 1930s, workers were often barred from joining labor unions. All of this changed in 1935 with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which guaranteed employees the right to form and join unions. By legalizing unions, workers gained more power and were able to negotiate higher pay, better conditions, and fair working hours.
“Collective bargaining” is the mechanism where unionized workers and their employers attempt to negotiate a contract to determine many of the terms and conditions of their employment. Traditionally, this may include bargaining over pay and health benefits, seniority, and discipline policies. How is any of this relevant to baseball? In 1968, after more than a decade of trying to organize, MLBPA and MLB negotiated their first “collective bargaining agreement”. This new agreement began to change the power dynamic between player and owner and set the stage for collective bargaining throughout professional sports. The collective bargaining process set out to “level the playing field” by negotiating topics such as minimum salaries, grievance processes, mandatory arbitration, and many other issues such as the Collective Balance Tax, draft selections, and in-game strategy.
Today, many baseball fans argue about the collective bargaining process. Concerns are often over whether the MLB and the team owners (led by Commissioner Rob Manfred) have too much power and their unwillingness to make compromises with the MLBPA. However, there is much more at play. While criticism is warranted, such as when negotiations started, it is important to note that both players and owners have certain things that must belong in the agreement. Oftentimes, these things, such as minimum pay, are often disagreed upon. This is a natural part of collective bargaining. It takes time for both parties to agree.
In the case of the MLB, new collective bargaining agreements happen every 5 years. The most recent CBA expired on December 1, 2021. The next few weeks and/or months will be interesting to watch as the MLB and MLBPA come to terms on a new agreement.
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