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Players Unions and the Economics of Warfare

As Maury Brown notes, Major League Baseball has evolved into a paragon of labor peace. Unlike the NFL, the possibility of a lockout looming large despite skyrocketing revenues and fan interest, the prospect of a 1994-style labor stoppage is almost unthinkable in baseball today.

Why is that? Because the MLB and MLBPA fought their battles and reached a mutual understanding of each other's resources and resolve.

If I may borrow a bit from political science, there's a theory that non-violent disputes escalate to the level of armed conflict when rivals overestimate their own resources, underestimate their opponents' resources, and underestimate their opponents' resolve. Likewise, peace can only be achieved when both opponents reach agreement on these issues. Unfortunately, the information required to reach a consensus on this data can itself only be generated through war itself.

In essence, war is the unavoidable outcome of competition in world of imperfect information.

The same concept applies to collective bargaining disputes. The multi-decade conflict between the MLB and the players' union ended only after several battles and the acknowledgment on behalf of former MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller that they were, in fact, at war.

The situations aren't perfectly analogous. The NFLPA is still weaker than the MLBPA has been at any time prior to Flood v. Kuhn. We know this because it's the ownership threatening a work stoppage, and because the NFLPA is seriously considering decertification, essentially a “scorched earth” policy that unions employ when they have no remaining options


Regardless, the theory applies across sports: NFL players cannot expect peace without first going to war. And while they may not be ready to fight and win this time around, the long term balance of power will remain unstable until the union and ownership settle their differences on the proverbial battlefield.

Put it this way: maybe there'll be football in 2011-12, maybe not. If NFL players don't suit up to fight this year, however, this standoff will not be the last. Labor peace is unrealistic until both sides reach an agreement about resources and resolve. This is why we have labor peace in Major League Baseball. It's the only path to labor peace in the NFL.