Inside Baseball

The MLBPA Is Not Your Typical Union

The Detroit News recently broke its regular practice of running columns by high-ranking union officials and instead gave one John O’Neill, a member of AFSCME Local 3309 in Detroit, his shot at the op-ed majors. O’Neill’s contribution was a thoughtful piece on the history of unionization in professional baseball that was largely free of the ideological cant that is typical of union spokesmen. And as one might expect from any article on labor relations that strays even slightly from the usual union talking points, it subtly undermines union positions.

Let’s go to the highlights: O’Neill praises St. Louis Cardinals great Curt Flood for his brave stance against MLB’s reserve clause that bound players to bargaining with a single franchise throughout their careers. Flood took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down the reserve clause, opening up the possibility for players to declare free agency and offer their services to any team that might be interested. Naturally free agency has helped to make a lot of ballplayers very wealthy.

From there O’Neill laments the attempts of professional sports owners to pull down athletes' wages through salary caps, using the example of the NBA. Salary caps, he rightly notes, are subject to all sorts of gamesmanship. John O’Neill concludes that Detroiters, who are notable both for their love of sports and their loyalty to unions, should support major league ballplayers in their resistance to salary caps.

What’s interesting about this embrace of unionized ballplayers is that the Major League Baseball Players Association is a very atypical union. Most unions seek to minimize the influence of markets on the workers they represent, and standardize wages and benefits throughout an industry. The ultimate expression of this is the standardized wage schedule found in most union contracts, in which wages are determined strictly by job classifications and years of experience. Most unions also prefer to have shift assignments, promotions and layoffs decided by a strict seniority system.

Baseball is a little bit different. Needless to say, batting orders and pitching rotations in The Show are not based on seniority, and you’ll see more crying in baseball than you’ll see wage schedules. Flood’s crusade against the reserve clause opened up a market for ballplayers that had been shut down, and ballplayers ultimately negotiate their own salaries under ground rules negotiated by the union.

Among pro sports, where measuring performance is critical, baseball is well-known for its stats. Baseball fans and owners can evaluate ballplayers using a wide range of numbers: there are basic categories like batting averages, ERA, home runs, RBIs and saves, and more exotic ratings like OPS, Range Factors, DIPs and VORPs developed by statistical experts.

Professional baseball has no shortage of finely tuned methods to evaluate a ballplayer’s performance, and better ballplayers with better stats tend to draw higher salaries. If MLBPA has any concerns about all this objective evaluation and rewarding of performance, it’s kept them to itself.

This makes for a sharp contrast with the ballplayers’ fellow unionists at — to name just one example — the MEA, which is willing to prevent school districts from receiving millions of dollars in federal funds because it objects to the use of student test scores to evaluate teacher performance, and routinely rejects performance bonuses out of hand. Yet O’Neill sees no conflict between the MLBPA’s free-wheeling, market preserving unionism and the hard-line egalitarianism of the MEA and most other unions.

Of course, different unions work in different environments and have different priorities, but MLBPA’s history, and the fact that so many unionists are willing to embrace its causes, demonstrate at the very least that workers can prosper in a free market. There is nothing about evaluating performance or rewarding excellence that violates the dignity of working men and women. Allowed to break free from union politics for one column, even the most committed unionist can understand that much.

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Paul Kersey is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.