Will baseball fans be forced to suffer through another lockout once the league's collective bargaining agreement expires in December? In an interview with News Bureau Business and Law reporter Phil Ciciora, Daniel Gilbert, a labor professor and expert on the labor history of the modern baseball industry, looks beyond the World Series and discusses the current labor landscape in professional baseball.
The current collective bargaining agreement expires on Dec. 11. Should fans of Major League Baseball be worried about a lockout?
In a word, no. All signs are pointing to another relatively amicable and timely conclusion of bargaining in baseball. There appears to be a chance, in fact, that an announcement of the new CBA could come during the World Series. The two sides are still working out some very important issues, but reports from insiders have suggested that a deal looks to be relatively close at hand.
What issues are on the table during this period of negotiation?
One of the issues that may still be up in the air is the proposal to re-work the divisional structure and expand the playoffs to include more teams, a plan designed to keep more fans invested in the games throughout the entire MLB season. This idea, championed by Commissioner Bud Selig, is one of the most significant management proposals on the table. On the union side there is enthusiasm about proposed changes in how teams compensate one another for free agents that switch teams. Reduced team-to-team compensation (in the form of future draft picks) will mean that teams are more willing to offer contracts to veteran star players.
Other key subjects of bargaining include changes to the annual amateur draft - introducing more controls over the size of signing bonuses, and including more of the baseball world's talent pool within the draft. Under the current system, amateur players in the Dominican Republic, for example, are not part of the draft, since for years MLB teams have found it in their interest to be able to make independent transnational scouting arrangements. The system of so-called baseball academies in the Caribbean has developed as a form of labor recruitment separate from the annual amateur draft, and has allowed teams that invest more scouting resources in places like the Dominican Republic to sign more Dominican prospects.
As of right now, it remains unclear if there is consensus to shift toward a worldwide draft, though some form of policy change with respect to global scouting may come out of the current round of collective bargaining.
Baseball has enjoyed relative labor peace and financial prosperity in the 17 years since the strike that ended the 1994 season. What factors account for that, and do you see this era of good relations between the two parties continuing?
As the remarkably acrimonious experience of 1994 to 1995 fades, baseball looks more and more like a model of labor peace in big league sports. That certainly wasn't always the case. Strikes and lockouts had been the norm in baseball since the early 1970s, as team owners dug in their heels against the increasingly well-organized Major League Baseball Players Association.
Lots of factors have contributed to the emergence of relative labor peace in baseball, but I think the biggest change has been the development of real collaboration between management and the union. For example, team owners and the players' union have worked closely together on marketing their "product" to a global audience. The World Baseball Classic, the baseball world's version of soccer's World Cup, has been one such joint effort between management and the union. I think we can expect this sort of collaboration to grow in the years ahead.
There is a lesson here, I think, for other major sports. Baseball has really prospered during its era of labor peace. After spending the better part of three decades in a bitter fight with each other, team owners and players are now - at least when they are at their best - joint partners in a successful, growing industry.
Baseball's biggest black mark over the past two decades has been the stain of performance-enhancing drugs. Do you foresee players and owners implementing a more stringent drug-testing policy?
To be sure, public wrangling over drug testing - and over which side is to blame for the so-called Steroid Era - has been the most significant exception to the relative labor peace of the last decade or so. To my knowledge there is not a major change in the sport's drug-testing program on the table at the moment, perhaps because there is some sense on both sides that the current policy has had a positive impact. My hope is that the sport can eventually find a way to move beyond the rhetoric of personal accusation, and develop a system that values and rewards players' overall health and long-term well-being.