MLB owners lock players out in first work stoppage since 1995

Major League Baseball plunged into its first work stoppage in a quarter century when the sport’s collective bargaining agreement expired Wednesday night and owners immediately locked players out in a move that threatens spring training and opening day.

The strategy, the equivalent for leading a strike under federal labor law, ended labor peace in the sport after 9,740 days over 26½ years.

The teams decided to force the long-awaited showdown during an offseason rather than risk the players going out over the summer, as they did in 1994. Players and owners had managed to complete four consecutive non-stop deals. work, but they have been accelerating towards a clash for more than two years.

“We believe an off-season lockout is the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season,” Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred wrote in a letter to fans. “We hope that the lockout will relaunch the negotiations and bring us to an agreement which will allow the season to start on time. This defensive lockout was necessary because the players’ association vision for Major League Baseball would threaten most teams’ ability to compete.

The talks that began last spring ended on Wednesday after a brief session lasting a few minutes with the distant parties on the dozens of key economic issues. Management negotiators left the union hotel about nine hours before the deal expires at 11:59 p.m., and players said MLB made no new central economic proposals this week.

MLB’s 30 majority owners held a brief digital meeting to reaffirm their lockdown decision, and MLB announced its fourth lockdown — to accompany five strikes — in an emailed letter to the Major League Baseball Players Association.

“This drastic and unnecessary step will not affect the players’ resolve to secure a fair contract,” union chief Tony Clark said in a statement. “We remain committed to negotiating a new collective agreement that strengthens competition, improves the product for our fans and advances the rights and benefits of our members.”

That shutdown began 30 days after Atlanta’s World Series victory capped a full season after a pandemic-shortened 2020 played in empty stadiums.

The immediate impacts of the lockdown were an MLB memo to clubs freezing signings, the cancellation of next week’s annual winter meetings in Orlando, Florida, and the banning of players from team training facilities and weight rooms while possibly cooling ticket sales for 2022.

The union demanded a change following anger over falling average wages, with middle-class players driven out by teams focusing the payroll on the wealthy and veterans left behind in favor of lower-paid youngsters, especially among clubs tearing down their rosters to rebuild.

“As players, we see major issues there,” New York Mets pitcher Max Scherzer said of the 2016 deal. teams behave because of certain rules that are there, and adjustments have to be made because of that in order to make the competition stand out.”

There are eleven weeks left before pitchers and receivers show up for spring training on Feb. 16, leaving about 70 days to reach an agreement that allows for an on-time start. Opening day is March 31 and a minimum of three weeks of organized training has been required in the past.

Management, keen to preserve wage restraints won over decades, rejected union demands for what teams saw as significant changes to the sport’s economic structure, including reducing the time on duty required for the free agency and salary arbitration.

“We proposed to establish a minimum payroll for all clubs to meet for the first time in baseball history; to allow the majority of players to reach free agency sooner through an age-based system that would eliminate any claims of service time manipulation; and to increase compensation for all young players,” Manfred wrote. “When negotiations lacked momentum, we tried to build momentum by offering to accept the universal designated hitter, create a new draft system using a lottery similar to other leagues.”

Many clubs rushed to add players ahead of an expected lockout and signing freeze, committing more than $1.9 billion in new contracts – including a one-day record of more than 1, $4 billion on Wednesday.

“I felt like at least some groups of free agents were moving faster the last few days,” Pittsburgh general manager Ben Cherington said.

Two of the eight members of the union’s executive subcommittee have signed big deals: Texas infielder Marcus Semien ($175 million) and Scherzer ($130 million).

“It’s actually quite fun,” Scherzer said. “I’m a fan of the game, and to see everyone signing right now, to see teams go against each other in this timely way, it’s refreshing because we’ve seen freezes over the last few offseasons.”

No player has remained active since the 232-day strike that cut short the 1994 season, led to the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years and delayed the start of the 1995 season. a federal judge – future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor – issued an injunction requiring the owners to reinstate the labor rules of the expired employment contract.

The average wage rose from $1.17 million before the strike to $1.11 million, but then resumed its seemingly inexorable rise. It peaked at just under $4.1 million in 2017, the last CBA’s first season, but will likely drop to around $3.7 million when this year’s final numbers are tallied.

This money is heavily concentrated at the top of the salary structure. Of approximately 1,955 players who signed major league contracts at any time before the final month of the regular season, 112 had earned $10 million or more this year as of August 31, 40 of whom have earned at least $20 million. , including pro rata shares of signing bonuses. .

There were 1,397 winners under $1 million, including 1,271 at $600,000 or less and 332 under $100,000, a group of younger players who commute with the minors.

A union statement claimed the lockout “was specifically calculated to pressure players into giving up their rights and benefits and abandoning good faith bargaining proposals that will benefit not only the players, but the game and to the industry as a whole. … We’ve been here before, and the players have risen to the occasion time and time again, guided by a solidarity that has been forged over generations.

The union withheld license money, as it usually does in negotiations; cash, US Treasury securities and investments totaled $178.5 million as of December 31, according to a financial disclosure form filed with the US Department of Labor.

Some players’ agents have speculated that management’s credit lines may already be under pressure following the revenue deprivation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but club finances are more opaque publicly than those of the union, which which makes it difficult to determine comparative financial strength to withstand long labor. stop.

Manfred succeeded Bud Selig as commissioner in 2015 after a quarter century as an MLB labor negotiator. He was unusually publicly critical of the union’s position.

“They have never collectively abandoned the most extreme set of proposals in their history,” he said, “including deep cuts to the revenue-sharing system, a weakening of the balance tax competition and a shortening of the period during which players play on their own”. teams. All of these changes would make our game less competitive.

Neal T. Doss