Is baseball hurtling toward a disastrous work stoppage a little more than a week from now?
That’s what attention-grabbing headlines would lead you to believe. National baseball writers – informed by the spin fed to them by interested parties – confirm the oncoming calamity with breathless (and inflammatory) reporting. EXTRA! EXTRA! Baseball is headed for months of pain in a cloak of darkness.
The good news for baseball fans is that reality for now is far different. Certainly, more nuanced.
Baseball does face difficult negotiations before the start of the 2022 season. But nothing that happens in December, or January for that matter, will dictate a downward spiral.
The Legal Context
Major League players have a union.
They have voted to be represented by the MLB Players Association (MLBPA) since 1965. The National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935, therefore requires their employers – Major League Baseball owners – to negotiate in good faith with the MLBPA over wages, hours and working conditions.
As a result, the sport has been governed by a series of collective bargaining agreements negotiated by MLB and the MLBPA since 1968. The current CBA was ratified in mid-December 2016 and has covered the 2017-2021 seasons.
It’s set to expire in nine days, at midnight of December 1.
While the NLRA requires both sides negotiate in good faith, it does not mandate they reach an agreement. If the current CBA expires without a new deal, the two sides would continue to negotiate.
The owners and union do have economic weapons they can use once the current CBA expires. The players can go on strike and clubs can lock out their employees. We’ve seen several examples of both kinds of work stoppages in baseball’s history, the most recent being a protracted player strike in 1994 that led to the cancelation of the postseason and World Series.
Since that strike, five CBAs have come into effect, covering 25 seasons, without either a strike or lockout.
On October 24, the Associated Press reported, citing no sources, that a baseball work stoppage “appears almost certain” to start December 2. Ken Rosenthal (The Athletic) reported more recently that virtually everyone in the industry expects the owners to lock out the players on December 2.
How Bad Would a December 2 Lockout Be?
Not that bad.
Lockouts don’t have an effect when no one is actually working. A December 2 work stoppage would have to continue for more than two months before pitchers and catchers were scheduled to report for spring training.
What would owners be locking players out of in December?
Players wouldn’t be able to use the club’s facilities to work out. Those planning to do that will have to find other gyms. Paychecks wouldn’t stop because the vast majority of players are paid during the season, not over the offseason.
The most common fallout you hear about is a freeze of negotiations with free agents. It’s unclear how much pressure that would put on players as a group. Most players in the bargaining unit are not free agents. Players either already have signed contracts for 2022 (like Joey Votto or Sonny Gray) or have fewer than six years of service time and are under team control (like Jonathan India or Luis Castillo). A December lockout has no meaningful effect on those players. More than 20 free agents have already signed, and that number will grow before a December 2 lockout would go into effect.
Keep in mind that freezing free agent negotiations hits both sides. Front offices have plans for building their 2022 rosters, including signing free agents of varying degrees of importance. A lockout would put the clubs’ efforts on hold. While the economic pressure on a still-employed GM may not be as great as that on a free agent player in limbo, it’s also not zero. Cramming free agent signings into a last-minute scramble imposes stress and costs on ownership side, too.
Beyond that, the arbitration process scheduled to take place could be postponed by a lockout. The deadline for clubs to tender contracts to unsigned players is December 2. Exchange of salary arbitration figures takes place in mid-January and hearings extend to mid-February. All of that could be put off by the lockout. But almost every player in that circumstance knows where he’s going to end up and roughly how much money he’ll make.
An early lockout can be preferable to a later one. In 1994, the two sides failed to reach an agreement on a new CBA and the season was allowed to start while the sides continued to negotiate. When no deal emerged, the players went on strike in August – a time of their maximum leverage. The two sides dug in and the strike forced the cancelation of the 1994 postseason and even extended into 1995.
Where This is Headed (For Now)
The contentious negotiations surrounding the pandemic in 2020 were a reminder to both sides of what’s at stake and the importance of solidarity. Many baseball writers contributed to the acrimony then by channeling “anonymous leaks” that had no purpose other than to inflame public opinion.
Amid public posturing and saber-rattling, could a spirit of cooperation break out this time that allows a deal to be hammered out by December 1?
Maybe. The two sides are negotiating face-to-face. Both have wish lists so there is room for deal making. Playing baseball games is in the long-term interest of both sides. There hasn’t been a work stoppage in 26 seasons. And there’s enough money to divide up for everyone to go home in limousines.
That might be too much wishful thinking given the stakes involved. But it’s also worth pointing out the expiration of the CBA doesn’t force a lockout. That’s a choice the owners would make. They could simply keep bargaining while going ahead with free agency and arbitration.
A lockout could present a strategic public relations risk to the owners. Lockouts tend to shift public sentiment in the direction of the players, who can say they want to get back and play but the owners won’t let them. We saw that dynamic in 2020 when it appeared players wanted more games – more baseball! – than owners did.
But the bottom line is a December 2 lockout isn’t a big deal.
It’s timed to be as ineffective as possible. To do minimal damage. It would test the resolve of the players, but in a minor way that makes it easy for them to pass. None of the three previous owner lockouts in baseball, the most recent being in 1990, led to any canceled games.
The hope is an early lockout would focus attention, speed up negotiations and prevent a real interruption to the regular season. Both sides would still be required by the NLRA to keep negotiating in good faith and be subject to an unfair labor practice complaint if they didn’t.
The complexity and importance of the CBA talks should not be minimized. The list of issues to resolve is long and thorny. First and foremost, a creative solution must be found to the fundamental problem that players have been losing revenue share the past several years. Resolving that will require players themselves to change the way they think about how they get paid across the arc of a career. No easy thing.
Given what’s on the line, it wouldn’t be surprising if negotiations lasted right up to the point where the start of spring training is threatened. That’s when owners would normally begin raking in revenue and players would receive paychecks.
A work stoppage that extended beyond that date would be another thing altogether.