Baseball Stands Alone With Labor Peace

DENVER—Amid all the hoopla of the Super Bowl came the sobering realization that the NFL and the NFL Players Association are miles apart in trying to work out a labor agreement before the current deal expires March 4.

The NBA All-Star Game will be tainted by a lack of conversation—much less progress—among the NBA and the NBA Players Association on their labor agreement, which expires June 30.

Both leagues look likely to deal with looming lockouts. And while the NHL players did opt to extend their labor deal an additional year, through next season, there are concerns of a major showdown in the next negotiation in light of their union's new executive director, Donald Fehr, the longtime head of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

And then there is baseball.

Baseball's Basic Agreement expires on Dec. 11, but nary a word of concern has been spoken about a possible work stoppage. The focus going into these negotiations is on ancillary issues, such as the draft.

Who'd-a thunk it?

A sport that for a quarter of a century was scarred by eight work stoppages is headed into its second decade of labor peace.

Undoubtedly both the players and owners learned the hard way in their last labor war, which famously forced the cancellation of the World Series, an event that had withstood two world wars and had been played for 89 consecutive years.

More than that, however, stability in labor has come with stability in leadership: Michael Weiner for the players and Rob Manfred for the owners.

Working Together

This isn't like the Marvin Miller days with the MLBPA, or even the early years of Fehr's leadership when every negotiation ownership would bring in another chief negotiator. Contract talks would get bogged down in posturing, while the owners' negotiator du jour would try to prove he was a tough guy.

Weiner, who has succeeded Fehr as head of the union, and Manfred, baseball's executive vice president of labor relations and human resources, aren't best friends. But from a labor standpoint they have an important connection: a history with each other at the bargaining table. Both men grew into their current roles, sitting at the table initially as aides.

They grew into their role as the chief negotiators, and have been through enough bargaining battles to have an understanding of each other's approach. They don't have to push to see how much they can get away with or to find out if the other side is serious.

Also don't overlook the role that Bud Selig has played in baseball's labor peace as commissioner.

Selig, who of course was the longtime owner of the Brewers, tore down the fa├žade that his predecessors tried to create that the commissioner was looking out for the best interest of both sides. Picked and paid by the owners, previous commissioners never earned the trust of the players, and as a result they became impediments when they attempted to insert themselves as mediators. Never was it more evident than in 1990, when commissioner Fay Vincent would bounce between the owners and the players, trying to be best friend of both sides.

Given the peace of recent years and the ability of the two sides to finally address critical issues, including drug testing, the draft has become the most public issue faced by baseball, and truth be told, the players are concerned about the same issues as owners: the growing signing bonuses given amateurs.

Owners don't like the gamble of multi-million-dollar guarantees on players with no professional track record. And big league players know the escalation of bonus spending comes at the expense of spending on established players, who are the members of the union.

A slotting system for draft bonuses, along with an expansion of the draft to limit the free agency of foreign players are generally endorsed by both sides, though they differ in specifics.

Meanwhile, the other leagues face monumental financial divides. NFL owners, who currently take $1 billion off the top before giving the players 59 percent of the game's revenue, want to increase the initial take to $2 billion and reduce players' percentage of the pie. They also wanted to expand the regular season from 16 to 18 games, which the players oppose because of the physical toll it would take. In the NBA, the players currently get 57 percent of the revenue, and while the union has indicated it is willing to take a lower percentage, owners are looking at a 40 percent reduction that the players find excessive.

So it could be that baseball has the fall calendar to itself by the time the playoffs roll around.