Tony Clark, head of the MLB Players Association.
Photo: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File
Photo: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File

Free agency ‘broken’ as spring training begins, so labor clash already on the horizon

MLB pitchers and catchers report this weekend. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are among the star free agents still unsigned. Lots of lesser free agents are out there, too. MLB revenue and franchise values are soaring while player salaries are set to decline in consecutive years following decades of increases.

You see where all this is headed. 

The current labor deal expires after the 2021 season. Players eventually may have to decide if they are willing to go on strike for the first time since 1994-95. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports that players already authorized the union to increase their contributions to a contingency strike fund, which normally doesn’t happen until near the end of labor agreements. 

Union head Tony Clark surely will hear the grumbles when he makes his spring training rounds this year. He likely will tell his members that owners are colluding to hold down salaries, not an unreasonable belief given the circumstances and the history of owners doing just that. If the declining salaries are about front offices wising up on player expenditures, it’s odd that all 30 teams suddenly got smart at the same time. 

Good luck proving a conspiracy, though. Players’ energy might be better spent asking Clark why the labor agreement the union signed just two years ago isn’t working for them salary-wise. 

The different constituencies in the players’ union have varied concerns, but one thing binding them all — young, old, star, fringe — is that, collectively, their median salary is less than in previous labor deals. Meanwhile MLB continues to enjoy record gross revenues, according to Forbes.

Without considering collusion, it seems there are structural issues behind the declining salaries.  

Players need six years of service time to reach free agency, by which point most of them are past their primes. On the front end, teams are manipulating service time for prospects to hold down their wages in prime years and have more controllable seasons. The game is becoming younger, debut ages remain the same and older players are getting squeezed out.

That’s why we are hearing about a potential labor clash two years before the current agreement expires. It appears the players are girding up for a fight. It is one they would wage with pubic sentiment against them, as always.

The customers never side with players in labor disagreements. It’s true that players can get their message out without relying on traditional baseball media, which has plenty of water carriers for management. Players can take their message directly to the fans via social media. 

You saw some of this recently. Justin Verlander said “the system is broken” because about 100 free agents remain resigned. Braves reliever Peter Moylan reminded his Twitter followers that “ every team can afford (a $300 million) contract.” 

But players can be right in their demands, and it won’t win them public support. They are (mostly) wealthy workers. They are not sympathetic figures, and because sports reflect our society, plenty of people resent them for having the audacity to seek more money when they are not part of the capital class. 

When working stiffs complain about low wages, they are told they should make themselves more valuable. Hardly any group of workers does that more than pro athletes. They are a small group of employees with specialized skills generating an enormous amount of revenue. 

Yet, at some point, consumers decide there should be some arbitrary cap on salaries. Players are not normal workers, either, because they also are the product. No one pays to see the owners work, yet no one ever says there should be an arbitrary cap placed on their profits. 

I don’t feel sorry for the players. I do identify with them as fellow workers, so I can’t begrudge them for seeking their value in a profitable enterprise. Give me millionaire workers over the idle rich.

I doubt my view is the majority one. I doubt it even matters that much to those who agree with me. You may see the players have a point on principle, but ultimately, the game’s fans just want to see baseball. 

Even considering the emotional stakes, I’ve always thought it’s odd that fans cheer for the owners in labor disputes. After all, they don’t identify with billionaires (at least not so far as wealth). Also, it’s not as if the owners are passing their salary savings on to their customers. 

Braves fans already know this. The team has dramatically increased profits in its taxpayer-subsidized stadium while its payroll remains flat. Perhaps some Braves fans aren’t happy about that development. But if there’s a strike they and most MLB fans will be persuaded by the ownership view: games would be played if the greedy players would show up and do their jobs. 

That’s the public backlash players would be up against should they decide to strike three years from now. They already have to think about it because something is wrong with the system. Harper and Machado will get the headlines now, but that’s the bigger story going forward.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.