Labor Strife in Major League Baseball

By: Mason Roth

The word “collusion” has been thrown around fairly frequently over the last few months in Major League Baseball (MLB). It is currently the baseball off-season, meaning that no regular-season games are currently played (and will not be until March). It is also during this time that teams are typically most active in trading and signing players. However, this off-season has been notably quiet with regard to player acquisitions. There are a multitude of players who have played well enough that a team should sign them, yet they remain free agents for reasons that are not entirely clear. While many may look at this and see it as purely an issue with the MLB, there are several legitimate labor issues at play here.

The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) is the collective bargaining representative for all current MLB players. MLBPA and the 30 MLB clubs have signed numerous collective bargaining agreements (CBA) over the years, including the most recent one, which is in effect until 2021. In 1968, the CBA barred collusion by writing, “Players shall not act in concert with other Players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs.” More importantly, the current CBA retains that same language. Yet, many have alleged that the latter half (related to the clubs) is precisely what is occurring this off-season.

In the 1980s, MLB clubs decided not to pursue players who were in talks with re-signing with their current clubs. This led to a labor strife, and the MLB eventually settled with the MLBPA, paying out $280 million to players affected by these labor decisions by MLB clubs.

If the MLBPA feels that the MLB has engaged in actual collusion, particularly with regard to clubs acting in concert with each other, there may be only two options: the first is to file an official grievance in court, and the second would be to engage in a labor strike.

As the CBA makes clear more than once, “[N]othing herein shall alter or abridge the rights of the Parties, or any of them, to resort to a court of law for the resolution of such complaint or dispute.” And while no grievances have been filed, there have been talks of players going on strike this season. There is also evidence that relations between the MLBPA and clubs are not particularly strong: when the MLBPA and the clubs signed the current CBA in 2016, they did so only hours before the previous CBA was set to expire. And in January 2018, the MLB released an official statement denying any collusion, while also placing the blame for the slow off-season on a single sports agent.

Now, while that sports agent is responsible for negotiating contracts for certain players, it seems inconceivable that he is the cause of the slow off-season, particularly because he does not represent every free agent on the market. And others have pointed out the disingenuous nature of this excuse by the MLB. If, contrary to what MLB states, there is collusion happening, then that may have serious legal repercussions for the MLB. If players continue to linger on the free agent market without any interest from clubs, that could ultimately be seen as a violation of the CBA, leading either to a strike or to legal action being filed in court.