The MLBPA: What We Do
The Players Association works for players year-round, around the clock
By Jeff Fannell
For much of its 50-year history, the Major League Baseball Players Association has been widely hailed as one of the strongest unions in America. For many casual observers, the fact that the MLBPA is a union, and not merely an association of individuals with similar interests (like doctors or dentists), often gets lost in translation. However, the MLBPA is in fact a true labor union, formed under the same laws that govern the Teamsters and other more notable unions. As a result, the MLBPA carries out a host of traditional union functions on behalf of its player-members every day. Those functions, broadly speaking, include such union staples as contract negotiation; contract administration; and grievance handling.
Contract negotiation is perhaps the PA’s most well-known role, given the media and public attention that usually accompanies collective bargaining in sports. For the MLBPA and Major League Baseball in particular, the history of eight work stoppages from 1972-1994 has served to heighten public scrutiny and anxiety with every round of new negotiations between the two sides.
With a string of over 20 consecutive years of labor peace, the parties engaged in another round of bargaining this year to replace the current CBA, which expires on Dec. 1, 2016. Although formal discussions with MLB began in early 2016, the PA staff had spent the better part of the previous two years conducting research, collecting data, strategizing, and meeting with players and others in preparation for the negotiations. That effort took place amidst the normal day-to-day operations of the organization, including administering and enforcing the current agreement.
Once a CBA is negotiated, in many ways the real work just begins, as the rights and obligations embodied in the agreement must be honored. Ensuring that they are requires not only the vigilance of the PA staff, but also entails the union working closely with players and agents, both of whom have frontline dealings with the clubs each day. Players and agents typically call the union office with questions or concerns relating to the player’s individual playing contract, the CBA or other governing agreements. Staff members also regularly monitor player transactions, media reports and other sources to identify any potential problems that may need to be addressed. Prompt and precise handling of these issues is key to making sure that the agreements reached by the parties in negotiations are carried out as intended, and requires union staff to communicate daily with players, agents and the Commissioner’s Office.
In the vast majority of cases, the parties are able to work through their issues and agree on what the CBA may require of one or both sides in a given situation. However, when the parties, for whatever reason, are unable to reach an amicable understanding, the grievance arbitration process is available to help resolve their differences. The parties have agreed to use one arbitrator to hear and decide the majority of their disputes. For more complicated matters, a three-party panel consisting of the arbitrator and one representative each from the union and MLB may be employed. Either way, the arbitration of disputes between employees and employers is a long-established principle of national labor policy and stands as a critical component of the CBA.
In most non-union workplaces, legal disagreements between a company and its workers may end up in court. Civil litigation can be both time consuming and costly for all involved. By contrast, grievance arbitration is less formal than civil litigation, which helps save the union and MLB time and money. In addition, by relying on a seasoned labor arbitrator to hear their disputes, the parties get the benefit of having their cases decided by someone who understands the complexities of the industry and the intricate rules that govern the relationships between players and clubs.
The grievance arbitration process is one of the most important provisions in the collective bargaining agreement. It was through the grievance process that players won the right to become free agents in 1975. The union also pursued three separate collusion grievances in the late 1980s, which resulted in the owners agreeing to pay $280 million that the union ultimately distributed to the aggrieved players. It was also through the grievance machinery that the union was able to fight off contraction (the owners’ plan to eliminate two teams following the 2001 season). While these are a few of the more notable cases that were pursued through grievance arbitration, dozens of other cases are filed each year, mostly by the union, as it seeks to protect and advance the rights of players under the CBA and other agreements.
Another major part of the union’s work involves salary arbitration. Generally, players with at least three, but less than six years of service time are eligible for salary arbitration, as are “Super 2” players. (“Super 2s” are players with the highest seniority among players with at least two but less than three years of service and at least 86 days of service in the immediately preceding season).
Each year, over 200 players are eligible for salary arbitration. The union actively assists and guides every salary arbitration eligible player through the process, from the backup catcher to the Cy Young Award winner. The goal is to help each player and his agent take full advantage of the salary arbitration process by negotiating, or obtaining through an arbitration hearing, a salary commensurate with the player’s performance and contribution. The union monitors the salary arbitration market throughout the year, but the heaviest lifting typically takes place from the end of the regular season through the third week of February, when several PA lawyers and staff members are in full-time arbitration mode.
The union also spends considerable time throughout the year working with player agents. As noted, such work involves contract administration, grievance arbitration and salary arbitration. The union also serves as a reliable resource for agents regarding the player market, the understanding of which is vital to successful contract negotiations.
Currently there are nearly 500 agents certified by the MLBPA. Since 2015, any person who desires to be an agent must first take and pass a written test. The union provides training materials and a one-day seminar to help agent candidates prepare for the exam. Once a successful candidate joins the ranks of certified agents, he or she becomes subject to a comprehensive set of regulations devised by the union. Several staff members are dedicated to administering the agent regulations, which include everything from monitoring agent conduct to ensuring that all agent paperwork is on file and up-to-date.
Occasionally, disputes arise between a player and agent, or between an agent and his former agency. In both instances, the dispute usually involves the payment of fees. To handle such matters, the union employs a dispute resolution mechanism that includes arbitration of the disputes, and sometimes, mediation. Arbitration hearings are conducted before an experienced labor arbitrator in accordance with the procedures outlined in the agent regulations. The union oversees the entire process from grievance intake to final resolution of the matter to ensure the smooth and orderly processing of every dispute.
Not to be lost in all of this is the main goal of union’s agent regulations: to help provide players with an agent corps that is both knowledgeable and committed to the highest standards of player representation.
Another key part of the union’s mission is carried out through the group licensing program, which is essentially the business and marketing arm of the Association. The group licensing program leverages the marketing power of MLB players as a whole to help create marketing and other commercial opportunities for players with union licensees and sponsors. The program also plays a vital role in generating revenue for the union in support of its overall operations, which includes building up cash reserves in the event of a labor stoppage.
Other areas of the union’s day-to-day work include player safety and health, international play (including the World Baseball Classic and international games in the regular season and off-season), and assisting players in their charitable endeavors through the Players Trust, to name but a few. In total, the entire MLBPA staff is dedicated to providing an ever-increasing array of services to players in order to protect and advance their interests. It is a daunting task that grows more difficult each year as the industry expands and the rules governing the relationship between players and clubs become more complex.