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The MLBPA is signing its own death warrant

How the union refuses to deviate from the collision course it’s set with its own future

MLB: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum-Press Conference Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, in these digital pages, Bill Thompson and I separately wrote about the deal that Major League Baseball and the MLB Players’ Association had made regarding the 2020 season in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

As Bill correctly noted, in the deal, the union had sacrificed solidarity with future members for present-day security.

There isn’t a single protection for anyone but veteran MLB players in the service time victory the MLBPA achieved. At a crucial time when labor has been given an unprecedented chance to come together and show the owners of the means of production that things are about to change the MLBPA decided instead to look after themselves. Minor league players are still on their own while the retooled amateur draft and the now inevitable international draft did an incredible amount of harm to every prospective affiliated baseball player the world over.

But as I considered in my own piece, this failure of solidarity has complications and consequences far beyond this one agreement.

As I’ve written before, the biggest weakness for the union continues to be its willingness to sacrifice future members - be they minor league players or amateurs - for current MLB veterans. It may be a way to maintain labor peace in the short run, but in the long run this won’t ensure the long-term viability of the union. The MLBPA needs to take a much more sober view of its longstanding willingness to sacrifice its future members’ needs, for their sacrifices will end up weakening the union in the long run.

Why? Because the MLBPA is making the conscious choice to exclude from its protection any of its future members. Minor leaguers aren’t included. Amateur players aren’t included. In short, the union isn’t just failing to secure the loyalty of future generations of MLB players - it is actively harming them, and in so doing running the very real risk that they will eschew the union entirely in response.

Consider: amateur players this year will have not just the league to blame for a shameful financial position, but the union as well. Minor leaguers left behind by the MLBPA for decades are now being sacrificed outright by the union for the sake of current veterans. Certainly, there is safety in numbers which the MLBPA can offer and being a lone wolf cannot, but at the same time the MLBPA has limited that safety to a select few, and turned the labor market in MLB from solidarity to an outlook of “us versus them.” Minor leaguers who come up to the majors learning that the MLBPA won’t look out for them now have learned the additional bitter lesson that the union is as dangerous to their interests as the league itself.

So it’s not at all out of the question that the union’s actions here will constitute an inflection point in its future. After all, people are self-interested. and at least some will have long memories. Why should they be loyal to a union which has caused them harm but secured for them no benefit? And yes, some may make the self-interested calculation that they have more to gain from joining the union, but the union’s future depends on a degree of loyalty and solidarity which, as Bill correctly noted, the union has yet to show in the Tony Clark era. Studies have proven that a union comprised solely of people who care about their own interests first above those of the collective whole will not have the cohesion necessary to remain united in the face of acrimonious collective bargaining.

Brian Dijkema wrote about this problem of union self-destruction in 2018 for National Affairs.

Organized labor — like religious or political institutions — is always only a generation old. Indeed, labor relies on a blend of both habits practiced by a distinct community and a distinct moral vision to endure. And while the habits and members of the community may adjust to meet new historical realities, if the moral vision is lost, the community cannot hold together. It is like dropping a tooth into acid: It might look okay for a while and might even look strong, but it is dissolving. In time it will simply disappear. . . . Young workers don’t care about institutions that don’t seem to care about them, and analysis of union membership by age shows that younger workers are having fewer and fewer interactions with unions. The percentage of unionized workers between the ages of 25 and 34 is lower than those in older cohorts, contributing to what Gavin Kelly, in reference to a similar phenomenon in the U.K., describes as a growing class of “never members.”

This isn’t just speculative. As Sarita Gupta, Stephen Lerner, and Joseph McCartin wrote for the Boston Review last year, in the 21st century, the traditional binary approach of a cohort of workers bargaining with an employer “has failed on every level.” Far more successful in the 21st century is collective bargaining that includes outside stakeholders in the agreement - in this context, that means minor leaguers and amateurs as well, with everyone whose rights are to be impacted having a seat at the table.

Put more bluntly, as Andrew Tillett-Saks did for Jacobin, “Whether unions refused to organize them, opposed their legal rights, or supported their political repression, workers shunned by unions have regularly come back to haunt labor like ghosts. Workers left alone to fend for themselves are left little choice but to undercut unions.” Minor leaguers and amateurs seeking to protect their rights now have no choice but to consider the MLBPA an opponent, not an ally, and respond accordingly. How, exactly, can the union endure if it is being attacked by its own future membership?

The sad and inescapable answer is that no union can survive the alienation of its own future. But that’s what the MLBPA is doing - setting its future on fire to preserve its present.

Of course, the league isn’t going to step in to save the union; the league is only too happy to sit back and watch the MLBPA destroy itself, even if the results of that destruction won’t be seen for another generation. The MLBPA is in a full-blown crisis of its own creation. The saddest part is that they don’t seem to know it yet.