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Is the MLBPA’s long-standing solidarity at risk as a result of Biogenesis?

Aug 7, 2013, 8:55 AM EDT

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Howard Bryant has a fantastic article over at ESPN about the players union’s response to the Biogenesis scandal. In it he details how and why this PED scandal, unlike those which came before, represented the final straw for most players. Player who used to uniformly rally around those accused of cheating but who do so no longer. Who, in fact, are among the most critical voices of their fellow players.

Bryant wonders whether this shift is a harbinger of a greater fracturing of the union:

By publicly advocating unprecedented levels of punishments for violators now (players such as Schumaker and Detroit’s Max Scherzer publicly called for lifetime bans for first-time offenders), today’s players are essentially repudiating those attitudes so prevalent as recently as six years ago and during the height of the steroid era. But as a consequence, they might be exposing themselves to fragmentations that could shift the balance of power in baseball’s labor relationship in the favor of ownership. Biogenesis has inflamed the MLBPA’s membership. But in pushing for increased sanctions for PED use, players might be weakening their union’s longstanding position as the strongest negotiating body in the history of professional team sports.

It’s an interesting question, but I don’t think the union’s overall strength and solidarity is at risk.

Jonah Keri and I touched on this a bit on his podcast the other day, but my view is that there is a pretty clear delineation between PED issues and general pocketbook issues with which the union is normally concerned. There’s no reason why, on the one hand, the union can’t agree to stiffer PED penalties and begin to turn heavily on those among them who still cheat while still providing a unified front if the owners decided to, say, try to roll back the gains players have made in terms of salary, free agency and the like. There just isn’t some link between those issues and drug issues that necessitates a fissure on the part of the union in both instances.

Indeed, one could argue that the players’ solidarity regarding PED testing is a sign of health, not weakness of the union.  I’m put in mind of the United Auto Workers union in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. They became strong through solidarity and will. Then they spent decades getting everything they wanted. Then they, depending on who you talk to, either overreached tremendously and/or got stuck in a mindset where management’s views were never taken seriously and compromise, when it became necessary, wasn’t considered. Or, at the very least, was considered too late. Obviously there was a lot more going on with that and no sane view of the U.S. auto industry should absolve management completely, but it’s hard to walk away from that thinking that better outcomes wouldn’t have been realized if the union were more pragmatic. Solidarity is a huge part of a union’s power, but there comes a point where solidarity for its own sake is a weakness, not a strength.

I see the MLBPA as being pragmatic here. Their defense of A-Rod in the face of disproportionate punishment shows that they’re not throwing players under the bus, but the shifting views Bryant describes are setting the stage for them to agree to changes in the Joint Drug Agreement that pleases its membership. Still: despite all the tough talk now, I think it’s highly unlikely that they’d surrender their rights in a wholesale fashion in any changes to the JDA. When asked if Ryan Braun should be squashed, it’s an understandable emotional reaction to say “hell yeah!” When they sit down at a table and hypothetical changes are proposed that could squash any player, they may not be so quick to agree.

But no matter what happens with baseball’s drug rules, if Bud Selig tied to exploit this seeming softening of the union to, say, eliminate guaranteed contracts altogether or something, he would face fierce opposition. It’d be like 1994 all over again. Why? Because the union isn’t dumb and is fully capable of treating two different issues in two different ways. To the extent the owners and Selig misperceive this and attempt to exploit what they believe to be the union’s weakness, they will be in for a very rude awakening.

  1. js20011041 - Aug 7, 2013 at 9:07 AM

    The union can condemn cheating while still agreeing that Selig is overstepping his bounds. It doesn’t have to be either or. Whatever they may think of a-rod, if they think the answer to eliminating PEDs is to give the commissioner absolute power to step outside the CBA when it comes to rules and punishments, then they deserve whatever screwing they’ll have coming their way.

  2. paperlions - Aug 7, 2013 at 9:09 AM

    Players like Schumaker and Scherzer knew how their public comments would be received by other players. If they voices were the minority, it is unlikely they would have spoken so strongly or at all.

    I agree. These are two completely separate issues and have nothing to do with one another. The players, as a group, wanting strong PED penalties has nothing at all to do with union strength.

    • historiophiliac - Aug 7, 2013 at 10:01 AM

      If anything, it might indicate increased support of/involvement with the union from the rank and file. This change looks to have come from the bottom up. If so, that means the players feel effective in their union. That has to give them a greater sense of commitment to it.

      • paperlions - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:14 PM

        Exactly.

      • historiophiliac - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:15 PM

        We agree!

        /faints

      • paperlions - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:23 PM

        Are you sure it isn’t heat stroke?

      • historiophiliac - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:26 PM

        It might be. It was 100* yesterday (and a higher heat index). My house was over 80* yesterday evening and by this morning it had cooled down to all of 76*. :( I’m back to cold showers to cool off. You know I’m a delicate flower. I shouldn’t complain b/c July was actually mild and the grass is still green…in August.

      • paperlions - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:29 PM

        July here was the hottest July on record, which followed the wettest June on record. August has been fantastic so far. Highs in the high 70s, lows in the 50s, windows open day and night. This morning it was 64 in the house, a couple of days ago it was 58 inside as it got down to 50 over night. The next 10 days are projected to be more or less the same.

      • historiophiliac - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:29 PM

        I freaking hate you!

      • paperlions - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:31 PM

        Here, have an olive.

      • historiophiliac - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:32 PM

        Thanks. :(

      • paperlions - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:35 PM

        How about this Popsicle?

      • historiophiliac - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:37 PM

        That’s a Larry Jones dessert, bro.

        (I’m assuming that wasn’t intended to be dirty, but it was a pretty funny oops. lol)

      • paperlions - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:45 PM

        It wasn’t intended to be dirty. I just read the “Larry” thread….but I still don’t get the “oops” that was funny. Please explain.

      • historiophiliac - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:46 PM

        Nevermind.

  3. digmyearth - Aug 7, 2013 at 9:20 AM

    One interesting quality of this Union is that the members have to compete to get in it. Membership is earned by signing that MLB contract, and 99% of its members started out on the outside looking in. This is very different from the NFL and NBA where most players get drafted into a contract and the union. MLBPA has a very different personality as a result of this merit promotion system to join the MLB and MLBPA.

  4. largebill - Aug 7, 2013 at 9:24 AM

    MLBPA (like any union) has universal support from membership on the core issue of exacting as much financially as possible from ownership. When they leave the core issue of $$$ there will be some disagreement. However, as long as the primary commitment remains maximizing $$$ they will remain united.

  5. clarenceoveur - Aug 7, 2013 at 9:38 AM

    Totally agree with your take on this, its not going to weaken the union on financial issues. Even on this, players could unite around longer penalties but better process.

  6. ptfu - Aug 7, 2013 at 9:53 AM

    Different subject, but buried in the article is this blurb referring to Braun’s suspension:

    “MLB sources said the 65-game suspension was a combination of the 50-game penalty he escaped when former league arbitrator Shyam Das overturned it and 15 additional games for verbally attacking the integrity of baseball’s joint drug program.”

    Has this explanation of Braun’s suspension previously been announced? Did I miss it?

    So: attack the drug program and sit 15 games. If a player had said this on its own, without the drug accusations, would the player have been suspended 15 games? I don’t think so. I could see a fine, but no way does that person miss over two weeks.

    • tedwmoore - Aug 7, 2013 at 10:29 AM

      This explanation has an ad hoc flavor to it. Which is fine, because, as a settlement, Braun’s suspension should not be used as a bench mark for future punishment: no explanation was required, and, frankly, none should be given; it is its own beast.

    • moogro - Aug 7, 2013 at 1:04 PM

      Nice catch. It would be interesting to hear the union’s explanation of why they agreed to Braun taking this, and if there’s concern over precedent being set. One danger I see is that if deals can be cut outside the contract on an ad hoc basis, that could lead to various kinds of direct pressure on players that could get increasingly weird in their techniques without going through the union representation.

      • tedwmoore - Aug 7, 2013 at 1:15 PM

        Braun might have been more motivated to fight this had he not been injured, and if the remainder of this season represented a bigger chunk of money owed under his contract. MLB knew this, Braun’s people knew this. His settlement was almost gentlemanly, which kind of makes me uncomfortable given Bud’s prior ownership of the Brewers.

  7. Ryan Lansing - Aug 7, 2013 at 10:17 AM

    Comparing the MLBPA and the UAW makes sense up to a point, but I think you’re missing a big difference: MLB is rolling in money right now. It’s easy for management and labor to get along when there’s plenty to go around. The UAW won what they won when the US auto industry was at its peak. They could afford high salaries and pensions and health care in the 1960’s and still turn massive profits. Now, whether you blame it on foreign competition, or union overreach, or bad management, or the fact that fewer Americans can afford new cars, there just isn’t as much money to be made making cars.

    Solidarity is easy for the MLBPA these days because the players are getting paid and (most of) the owners are seeing hefty profits and a constant increase in the value of their franchise. Eventually that’s going to end because that’s how capitalism works. It might be the burst of the regional TV deal bubble, or something else that we don’t yet see coming, but someday profits will drop. The union will take some of the blame, regardless of whether they’re truly responsible for it. Then we’ll see a three-way fight much like the one that went on in Detroit around the time of the bailout: owners/management pleading poverty vs. union leaders who are offering concessions in an effort to preserve their own jobs and the system vs. rank-and-file union members who don’t think they should take a hit in the wallet to pay for someone else’s mistakes. The PED thing is akin to industrial unions negotiating penalties for factory workers who constantly show up late for their shift: people have different ideas of what the consequences should be, but the problem isn’t big enough to threaten solidarity.

    • paperlions - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:27 PM

      That is all true….but MLB has ALWAYS been rolling in dough and seen large profits and that didn’t lead to labor peace because the owners wanted to keep pretty much all of the revenue.

  8. nbjays - Aug 7, 2013 at 10:33 AM

    It’s easy for the MLBPA to say they advocate stiffer penalties for PED violations, but until they actually advocate for a tougher testing regime (something other than a couple of advertised-in-advance tests a season) that is designed to actually CATCH the PED users, I’ll just assume they are just paying lip service to the concept of a tougher stance against performance enhancing substances.

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