If I had to come out with one dominant impression from George Mitchell’s report about performance-enhancing drugs, it is this—the MLBPA has lost its way. No, it’s not from all the expected bashing of the union that took place in the report. That particular aspect was totally expected and predictable.
Almost eight years ago, when I was with MLBtalk, I wrote a piece about the decline and fall of the MLBPA. It is the topic of a chapter contributed to 2008’s Hardball Times annual. As one who has witnessed the eras of both Marvin Miller and Don Fehr, it seems that the unions under their stewardships are completely different animals.
Miller let the MLBPA define itself; policy was the result of a position that had the unconditional support and comprehension of the entire membership. Under Fehr and Gene Orza, it’s based on the ideologies of these two men. The biggest difference between the MLBPA (under Miller) and the NFLPA (and to an extent the old umpires union under Richie Phillips) was what made one strong, and caused the other two to become impotent.
Miller built MLBPA policy on top of the rock-solid foundation of consensus. The NFLPA (at the time, under the stewardship of Gene Upshaw) and the old umpires union policy were the results of ideas conceived in the minds of Upshaw and Phillips and later sold as a bill of goods to their constituents.
The results spoke for themselves.
The players union is an organization that defines itself by the salary bar. Every other consideration is secondary to seeing how high player salaries can go. Further, in recent decades, its strength has been based not on unity but rather in the disunity of the other side. Back in 1985, splintering economic interests made the two-day strike an iffy affair. The MLBPA was relieved when then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth stepped in and demanded a deal gets done or he’d toss the dispute into binding arbitration.
The players’ resolve was not seriously tested and the splintering of their economic interests never came into play.
In the 1990 and ’94-95 work stoppages, the union again counted on owner disunity and pressure on the commissioner (Fay Vincent and Bud Selig). It worked in 1990, but the owners under Selig held tough the next time through. No longer could the MLBPA assume that ownership’s ranks would crumble. Since then, the last two collective bargaining agreements have been negotiated without an interruption of the schedule and both contained numerous concessions to ownership despite staggering revenue growth.
The cat was let out of the bag when Don Fehr told a Senate committee not to consider unsubstantiated newspaper reports as fact when a player poll conducted by USA Today revealed that 17% of the players were against independent steroid testing, while 79% were in favor—and 44% stated that they felt pressure to juice to keep their jobs. It became clear that Fehr and Orza had not taken the time to find out what their constituents felt about an issue that was of great importance to them.
It made clear that union policy was set by Fehr and Orza’s personal ideologies rather than player consensus.
The thing is, unions are supposed to protect their membership. What has to be borne in mind is that human life—despite protestations to the contrary—is relatively cheap. Workplace safety is often overlooked since measures to create a safe environment cost money that eats into profits. A typical employer wishes to receive maximum output from the workforce at as little cost as possible. A union exists to insure that an employee has a degree of safety.
Here is where Fehr and Orza blew it—what they failed to understand (or simply ignored) is that by trying to keep an environment where players could use performance-enhancing drugs without concern of sanction, they were doing ownership a huge favor. Steroid-fueled performance was incredibly profitable and ownership didn’t want the gravy train to end. Players were risking their health by taking substances that possibly came from dubious sources and manufactured in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions.
Management didn’t care; player turnover is a fact of life in baseball. Somebody is always available to take the spot of somebody not performing should someone become injured due to steroid usage. They found an indirect ally in the MLBPA; higher profits translated into higher salaries and the interests of the salary bar were being served. Citing privacy issues, Fehr and Orza long resisted drug testing. This suited ownership just fine and it finally took government action to get both to deal with the issue in a substantive way.
Who was protecting the players now? Both sides were allowing them to take risks with their health to play in the major leagues.
Fehr and Orza’s ideologies created a multi-tiered playing field between players who used and those who did not, but also between players who could afford substances that were more sophisticated and manufactured in sanitary conditions and those who had to look to the black market to get what they needed to get or retain a job in the big leagues. Beyond this, players on the 40-man but not on the 25-man roster weren’t subject to testing while players not on the 40-man roster were subjected to regular testing.
What it boiled down to was that an aspiring major leaguer had to choose to use cheap anabolic substances created under dubious conditions or allowing players who were doing precisely that to get an available job. A lot of players gained MLBPA membership because they were willing to use these drugs to reach the major leagues. Further, two players on the same Double-A/Triple-A team competing for a 25-man roster slot may have been in a rigged contest if one was on the 40-man roster (and not subjected to testing) and the other was not.
A union that potentially creates/allows a situation where ingesting potentially toxic substances is a prerequisite to employment has lost its way. The MLBPA should be the one insuring that its membership have a healthy, safe, fair environment to work in. Pathetically, it appears that management is the one trying to create that safe workplace but is meeting resistance by the organization that should be protecting the workers it represents.
Granted, Selig and ownership are simply trying to cover their own keesters in all of this, but at least their actions (regardless of any self-interest) constitute a meaningful effort to make sure nobody is obligated to compromise his long-term health as a condition of employment.
While the MLBPA has ample reason to distrust ownership, its primary motivational directive of “whatever the owners think, we’ll think the other way” does not serve the players well in this instance. The union’s job is to protect the people funding the organization—not slavish devotion to an ideal that benefits only a small minority (the salary bar).
This much is clear: The players need to blow the whole thing up and start over. Negotiate the best possible terms they can in the next collective bargaining agreement and make sure it runs a couple of extra years. During that time, find new leadership, the kind that understands the power of consensus. It’s time for the players to take back their union from the ideologues Don Fehr and Gene Orza and replace it with a structure in which everybody’s interests are taken into account.
As long as they maintain the status quo, they will continue to lose the ground they gained under Marvin Miller.