For the first time since the mid-1990s, the MLB season will have regular-season games canceled over a labor dispute. Michael LeRoy, an expert in labor law and labor relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the years-in-the-making labor strife engulfing professional baseball.
The owners locked the players out in early December. For the average baseball fan, what’s the difference between a lockout and a strike?
For the average fan, there’s no major difference, but it does matter down the road for a possible complaint to the National Labor Relations Board. A “defensive lockout”– as the owners call it – occurs when an employer seeks to affect the timing of a labor dispute. The last collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association expired Dec. 1, which is much better timing for the owners than a contract that expires April 1 and exposes them to a strike on Opening Day.
The apparent impasse was essentially foretold long before the December lockout. Both sides have been preparing for this possibility for five years.
How does the current imbroglio compare with baseball labor strife of the past?
Generally speaking, players’ unions in the four major professional sports – MLB, NFL, NBA and the NHL – have lost most strikes and lockouts. However, this is already the second most pivotal labor dispute in professional baseball, ranking only behind the colossal MLB players strike in 1994. That walkout began in early August, just as the season was entering its period of peak fan interest.
By locking out the players, do the owners have extra negotiating leverage?
In theory, yes. But in reality, no – and that reality gap is driving the impasse. New York Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer has tweeted that players have a “war chest” that will enable them to wait out the owners. I don’t doubt that. It’s rumored that the players’ war chest includes an investment in a very successful online sports platform that has exploded in value.
If that’s true, it’s ironic that the players’ union would be using their gains as owners in this online venture to hold off the otherwise damaging effects of not being paid as employees during a lockout.
How does this affect minor league players, who have much poorer working conditions and paltry pay compared with their major league counterparts?
It won’t affect them much because the MLBPA does not negotiate for minor leaguers. That said, there will probably be a slight indirect effect as MLBPA negotiates better pay and service time accrual for players who are called up. But that’s about it.
If the lockout drags on, should fans expect to see scab players or minor leaguers playing in the big leagues?
The NFL employed scab football players in 1987 and it broke the union, but I believe this strategy would tank fan interest in baseball. Minor leaguers have their own issues with MLB: They are suing them for a massive amount of money for failing to pay them minimum wages under federal wage and hour law. I don’t foresee either scenario happening.
Could fans see star MLB players such as Bryce Harper playing abroad while the two sides are at loggerheads?
That sounded like a distinct possibility until the Russian invasion of Ukraine turned the world upside down. No one foresaw Russia putting its nuclear forces on high alert. It’s a long-shot scenario that I don’t think will come to fruition.
Given the stakes for both players and owners, do you see a swift resolution or have both sides dug in for the long haul?
I would wager on the players holding out for a long time. Every day this drags on, the balance of power shifts to the union. They will get most of what they want, I believe, for two reasons. First, they won big in 1994-95, and no baseball player has forgotten this. Second, their financial war chest appears to be loaded.
All that said, this is a dispute between millionaire players and billionaire owners. Few people are cheering for either side – they just want to watch baseball, period.
What does this portend for the labor movement writ large in the U.S.? Are professional athletes or unionizing Starbucks employees the future face of the labor movement?
Starbucks is the much bigger labor story. It involves workers who live paycheck to paycheck, and the organizing occurs on a small scale, which is why it’s been successful. There is little for any of us to relate to personally in the baseball labor dispute, other than our interest as fans.