On August 12, 1994, professional baseball players went on strike for the eighth time in the sports’ history. Since 1972, negotiations between the union and owners over contract terms has led to major economic problems and the absence of a World Series in 1994.
All issues were open for debate due to the expiration of the last contract. Until 1968, no collective bargaining agreement had ever been reached between the owners and the players (Dolan 11). Collective bargaining is the process by which union representatives for employees in a bargaining unit negotiate employment conditions for the entire bargaining unit (Atlantic Unbound). Instead, the players were at the mercy of each owner who possessed the exclusive right, at the close of each season, to resign each player on his roster. If the owner chose to renew a players contract, that player had the option of agreeing to those terms or not playing baseball.
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As a result of the obvious imbalance in the labour situation, the players attempted on several occasions to organize a union. Although this process may seem like a simple one, baseball has proven that it can be very difficult. The players have been represented by various unions in the twentieth century, all of which have failed until the current union, the Major League Baseball Players Association. After fourteen years of negotiations between the current union and the owners’ representative, the first ‘basic labour agreement’ between the two parties was reached. Led by Marvin Miller in 1968, the players received higher minimum salaries, better health insurance plans, and increases in retirement benefits. These so-called “Basic Agreements” in major industries usually turn out to be more complex. As a result, strikes and lockouts have occurred ever since (Koppett 23).
The baseball strike which occurred in 1994 was really about one thing; money. Two major issues led directly to the interruption and eventually the cancellation of the entire season. After a 28-0 vote among the owners, they agreed to share revenue on the condition they could get the players to accept a salary cap. The issue of revenue sharing was directly linked to the salary cap. By taking this action, the owners signalled they had come to realize the problem of disparity between big market teams (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago) and small-market teams (Seattle, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee).
The problem, however, was that because the owners linked their revenue sharing with a salary cap, the players felt they were being asked to solve the owners’ financial disparity problem. There is a noticeable difference in team payrolls, as displayed in 1993, when the payroll of the Toronto Blue Jays was $48.4 million, compared with the San Diego Padres’ payroll of only $10.6 million (Layden 17).
Therefore, the idea of revenue sharing, wherein big market teams would transfer monies to the small market teams, was a good one, but it caused disputes among the owners as to how the formula would be worked out. Not all of the small market teams were in bad shape financially. In fact, some that had built or were building new stadiums such as Baltimore, Cleveland, and Texas were doing quite well. It was not until June 14, 1994, that the owners finally presented their collective bargaining proposal, 18 months after they voted to reopen the contract. The owners proposed a 7-year contract that would split their total revenue with the players, 50-50 while introducing a salary cap over the next four years (Dolan 26). The players had been making tremendous gains in wages through free agency, and they did not want to see that trend come to an end. Provided that revenues did not fall, the players would be guaranteed no less than $1 billion in pay and benefits scheduled for 1994.
The proposal also eliminated salary arbitration but allowed players with 4 to 6 years of major league service to become free agents (compared with the 6 years previously required for free agency), with a right of first refusal by the player’s current club. For players with fewer than 4 years of service, a rising scale of minimum salaries was proposed, with the actual minimum amounts to be negotiated later on. Players’ licensing revenue (about $80,000 per player) would have to be split with the owners. Depending on the average obligation to the players under the 50-50 split of total revenues, no team could have a payroll of more than 110 per cent of that average or less than 84 per cent (Dolan 33).
To the players, the owners’ proposal had several shortcomings. The players’ share of 50 per cent of revenues would be a cut from the existing share of 56 per cent. In addition, the players did not want to share their licensing revenue, and the loss of salary arbitration would remove a major impetus to higher player salaries. Although the free agency would be liberalized, it came with the catch that the current club could retain a player by matching the offer of a club seeking a free agent. Another drawback was that the players’ pensions, health overage, and other benefits would be funded out of their own 50-per cent share of revenues (Atlantic Unbound).
The unions’ executive director, Donald Fehr, estimated that the owners’ proposal would cost the players over $1.5 billion in salary over the 7-year life of the contract. On June 18, the union predictably rejected the salary cap and other major aspects of the proposal. The union then proposed lowering the standard for qualifying for salary arbitration to 2 years, raising minimum salaries to $175,000 and, even eventually $200,000 (Monthly Labor Review).
With the union dismissing the owners’ proposals, it was not surprising a few days later when the owners rejected the union’s offer. No bargaining had even really taken place. The real purpose of the negotiators (Richard Ravitch and Donald Fehr) was to get their positions before the print and the broadcast media. This was very consistent with contract negotiations over the past quarter-century in baseball and suggested a strong likelihood of a work stoppage (Layden 26).
Baseball negotiations in the modern era have been plagued by strong-willed personalities. Marvin Miller set the tone when he refused to accept the paternalism between owners and players that had existed for so long in the game. Instead, he was determined to establish an adversarial relationship that continues to the present.
The players felt they had little alternative to striking. Had they continued playing through the season without coming to an agreement, the owners could have declared an impasse and most likely implemented their proposals. Also, the timing of the strike, which began on August 12, 1994, was favourable for the union because it inflicted maximum damage on the owners. That late in the season, the players had received most of their pay, but the owners were vulnerable to big losses because they receive three-fourths of their television revenues from postseason play.
In anticipation of a strike for the previous 4 years, the Players Association had retained a portion of each player’s licensing revenues from the sale of products such as baseball cards. As a result, a strike fund of about $175 million was accumulated so that each player with 4 years’ experience would have about $150,000 to hold them over until the strike came to an end (Monthly Labor Review).
At the beginning of the strike, the parties had agreed to accept mediation efforts by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Mediators try to persuade the parties to make concessions and come to an agreement, but, unlike arbitrators have no power to impose a settlement. Therefore, mediation would not necessarily bring an end to the dispute. Several Federal mediators, including the Conciliation Service’s director, John Calhoun Wells, we’re unable to make progress toward a settlement in 1994.
This was because the parties were already committed to disagreeing. Under such circumstances, no mediator can be successful. One change that did result from the suggestions of mediators was that several owners became involved in negotiations, and bargaining influence began to slip away from Ravitch and toward owners Jerry McMorris of Colorado and John Harrington of Boston (Monthly Labor Review).
Under the owners’ rules, a three-fourths vote was required to approve a settlement. This created a severe obstacle because the owners were split generally into three groups. The groups were largely based on market size, the small market teams, which include teams like Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Montreal, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Seattle. On the other end were owners with teams in large markets and some owners from smaller market teams that had recently built new stadiums and were doing well financially. These clubs, who had more to lose from a prolonged strike, included Atlanta, Boston, Colorado, Los Angeles, both New York teams, Texas, and Toronto. The remaining teams were somewhere in between, looking for only moderate changes, but were susceptible to arm-twisting from either side (Layden 42).
In late August, McMorris and the owners’ legal counsel, Charles O’Connor, suggested the idea of a graduated “luxury tax” to the union. If a club’s payroll significantly exceeded the major league average, that club would have to pay a luxury tax based on its total payroll. The tax rate would be graduated the more the club’s payroll exceeded the major league average. Money from the tax would go into a pool that would be distributed to financially needy teams (Monthly Labor Review).
The union viewed this proposal as a salary cap in disguise because clubs would resist signing high-salaried free agents if the addition to payroll would have the side effect of more taxes being paid. Still, the union tried to work with the luxury tax concept, proposing a 1.5 per cent tax on revenues and payrolls of the 16 largest clubs in terms of revenue and payroll, with the money distributed to the bottom 12 clubs (Dolan 111). The union also suggested that home teams share 25 per cent of their gate receipts with visiting teams. Shortly after rejecting the union’s counteroffer, on September 14, 1994, the owners declared the cancellation of the World Series for the first time since 1904 (Atlantic Unbound).
In mid-October, President Bill Clinton announced the appointment of William J. Usery, Jr., to mediate the dispute. The President could not have chosen a more able representative. Usery was Secretary of Labor in the Ford administration and before that was director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Although 70 years old, Usery had remained active after his Government service by privately mediating some of the Nation’s biggest industrial disputes in recent years. He had the experience to identify common ground and the tenacity to move the parties in that direction, but he lacked knowledge of the complications of baseball labour relations (Layden 55).
Unfortunately, Usery suffered the same fate as the earlier mediators. The parties modified their proposals somewhat but remained far apart. The owners wanted to contain the salary rise, which had grown to an average of nearly $1.2 million per player, while the union was unwilling to do so. At this time, the only understanding between the parties was that some kind of revenue distribution should occur from richer to poorer teams.
By the end of 1994, negotiations were slowing down, and the owners declared an impasse, putting the salary cap into effect. The declaration of an impasse was a dreaded scenario for the union because it meant that management could implement its own proposals. To show its distaste for the owners’ actions, the union filed unfair labour practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) (Atlantic Unbound).
Meanwhile, attention had shifted to other avenues of breaking in the deadlock. Ravitch resigned as a negotiator. The owners indicated that they would use replacement players if the strike was not resolved by the start of the 1995 season. Baltimore owner Peter Angelos shocked everyone by announcing that he would not use replacement players. Also complicating the owners’ resolution was a law in Ontario that prevented employers such as the Toronto club from using replacement workers. Like Angelos, Detroit manager Sparky Anderson stated that he would not work with the replacement players.
Frustrated by Usery’s ineffective mediation, President Clinton tried to turn up the heat by calling the negotiators to the White House and indicating that if a settlement was not reached by February 7, 1995, he would ask Usery to make his own recommendations for the settlement. Such recommendations would not be binding, but the President implied that they would be sent to Congress for legislative action or used as a basis for arbitration (Layden 58).
Congress, however, was not receptive to the idea of a legislative settlement. House Speaker Newt Gingrich stated, “I’m not sure Congress is the right place to try to organize the national pastime.” Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole said, “We’re very reluctant to get involved.” Thus, Usery’s proposed settlement and the President’s bill got nowhere. Neither did the idea of arbitration, because the parties would not mutually agree to allow an arbitrator to decide their fate in such an elaborate and complex matter (Atlantic Unbound).
A more likely possibility was the reversal of baseball’s exemption from the antitrust laws. Although this would not necessarily end the strike, it would pressure the owners to make compromises our of fear of antitrust litigation. A bill was proposed that would allow players to sue the owners if they unilaterally implemented work rules, but it would not have affected other aspects of the antitrust exemption. But once again, Congress rejected the bill.
The strike ended as a result of Government action, but not by the President or Congress. As noted earlier, at the end of 1994 the owners imposed a salary cap, reasoning that an impasse had been reached in the negotiations. This prompted the union to file unfair labour practise charges with the NLRB, accusing the owners of failure to negotiate in good faith and imposing the cap without a genuine impasse. Although the owners had reopened negotiations in December 1992, they did not make an offer until 18 months later.
Furthermore, the proposed offer made radical changes in the agreement. Then, after the owners made little change in their position, an impasse was declared. In light of these facts, the owners were vulnerable to charges of violation of labour law (Monthly Labor Review).
On March 26, 1995, the NLRB voted 3-2 to seek a court ruling forcing the owners to reinstate the provisions of the old collective bargaining agreement. Earlier, the Board had issued a complaint to the effect that the owners violated the National Labor Relations Act by implementing their proposal when no legal impasse existed. At the time, the owners might have imposed a lockout, but it is unlikely that they could have gotten the three-fourths vote needed to do so. Although technically the NLRB had only issued a complaint against the owners, and there was no specific ruling on the merits of the unfair labour practice charges, which could take considerable time, the board’s decision to seek an injunction pushed the matter to the court for speedy action.
Wisely, Fehr indicated that the players would end the strike under cover of such an injunction. On March 31, U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor ruled in favour of the players and issued an injunction against the owners. Judge Sotomayor ordered management to restore free agent bidding, salary arbitration, and the anti-collusion provisions of the expired collective bargaining agreement. As far as the players were concerned, the strike ended after this ruling (Layden 63).
The resumption of play by real big leaguers proved, once again, the old saying that “all strikes must end.” Nothing was settled by the strike, because the old contract provisions continued to apply, which has make the strike one of the most eventful, but unproductive, ever. At the end of the strike, the owners announced losses of $700 million and then added another $300 million in losses resulting from a delay of the start of the 1995 season (Monthly Labor Review).
Veteran players got some protection from the union strike fund, but they were really being paid back their own money, while other players got little or nothing. Average salaries dropped about 5 per cent, from $1,168,263 in 1994 to $1,110,776 in 1995, as financially straightened clubs looked to the minor leagues for cheaper talent and many veterans were released or took sizable pay cuts (Atlantic Unbound).
Fans, or course, were disappointed with the cancellation of postseason play, as well as the loss of the chance to see whether or not records would be broken. Tony Gwynn had a batting average of .394, with a chance to be the first player since Ted Williams to hit .400 for the season. Ken Griffey, Jr., Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Albert Belle, and Barry Bonds all were on pace to hit fifty home runs. Never before had two players hit fifty or more home runs in a single season.
There was also the case of Cal Ripken, Jr., who was on pace to break Lou Gehrig’s streak of playing 2,130 consecutive games. The divisional races were wide open, and the conclusion of the season would have been exciting. Angry fans sent a message of “a plague on both your houses” in 1995 by means of a 20-per cent drop in attendance (Dolan 134).
By then end of 1996, some of the dark clouds lingering over the game had been swept away. Postseason play in 1995 sparked renewed interest in fans. The 1993 television agreements with NBC and ABC were terminated by the networks at the end of the 1995 season, and new contracts with NBC and Fox put baseball back in the money and out of disastrous Baseball Network advertising agreements (Layden 77).
A troublesome barrier to long-term stability was cleared when the parties reached a collective bargaining agreement in November 1996. Just 3 weeks earlier the owners had rejected an agreement between their new negotiator, Randy Levine, and Fehr. A major factor in breaking the deadlock was the signing of free agent Albert Belle by Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Reinsdorf had argued the need for fiscal restraint among owners, but then he signed Albert Belle for $55 million over 5 years, far more than any player previously had received. With Reinsdorf’s actions ignoring his words, opposition by the owners dissolved into a 26-4 ratification of the agreement (Monthly Labor Review).
The new agreement contains many of the features of the old one, with little modification. Minimum salaries were upped from $109,000 to $150,000 in 1997. The principal change is a luxury tax on team payrolls exceeding $51 million in 1997, $55 million in 1998, and $58.9 million in 1999. No luxury tax will be in effect in 2000, and the players can opt to extend the agreement to 2001 without a tax. Proceeds from the luxury tax go into a revenue-sharing pool, along with monies from a new 2.5-per cent tax on player salaries. The pool, which is further increased by the donation of some local broadcast revenue of wealthy clubs, is distributed to 13 small-market teams to enable them to compete better financially (Koppett 233).
The new revenue sharing and salary restraints are expected to be relatively moderate in their impact. Basketball and football have similar constraints on salary growth, and players in those sports have continued to enjoy generous economic rewards. Perhaps more important, as a result of the new arrangements, these sports have not had work stoppages. Hopefully, baseball can do the same. As part of the new agreement, the owners and players agreed to inter-league play for the first time during the regular season. The move should have and did help stimulate lagging attendance (Monthly Labor Review).
In conclusion, the baseball strike of 1994 was the longest and costliest work stoppage in the history of professional sports. Many view the strike as a huge waste of time since no real modification were put into effect. But, finally, after 234 days, more than $1 billion in losses, no World Series and not even a settlement, America had its baseball back.
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