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Weiner, like Fehr, product of experience
Published June 29, 2009
Baseball’s extended run of labor peace, routinely cited as a key factor in the sport’s historic growth over the past decade, likely gained another important boost with the nomination of MLB Players Association general counsel Michael Weiner to replace the outgoing Donald Fehr.
Fehr, 60, last week announced plans to retire no later than March after a quarter century on the job. He leaves behind a massive and deeply complex legacy that defied the corrosion of the labor movement in most other industries and helped bring MLB players unprecedented wealth, but also included some of the sport’s darkest chapters.
Weiner, meanwhile, played key negotiating roles in the labor deals of 2002 and 2006 that were reached without a work stoppage. More critically, he is widely viewed as more solutions-oriented and less dogmatic than Fehr, attributes that will be tested again in 2011, which marks the final season for the sport’s current five-year labor deal. Those negotiations would be Weiner’s first as the union’s lead figure while they would probably be the last for MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. The commissioner’s contract expires in December 2012, but Selig has twice this decade deferred retirement plans with new deals.
Weiner’s bid to replace Fehr will be voted on and is expected to be approved by the union’s executive board and membership this summer.
“We know Mike very well and have had a lot of very positive dealings with him,” said Rob Manfred, MLB executive vice president for labor relations and human resources. “He’s very smart, capable and committed to his players, but we’ve found him to be fair and creative, and we think there’s a relationship of respect and trust.”
The key differences between Fehr and Weiner, many industry observers believe, stem from their early professional experiences. Fehr’s first collective-bargaining agreement leading the union, struck in 1985 after a brief players strike, was quickly followed by a period of owner collusion. Fehr and the players eventually exposed the collusion and gained a $280 million settlement from the owners.
Weiner, 47, joined the players association in 1988, and while he was present for the dark days of 1994-95 and other skirmishes, Weiner did not have a prominent role in the collusion proceedings.
“These guys, definitely Don, have been [products] of their experiences,” said one club official. “I’m not sure Don ever fully got over the collusion after his first deal. He seemed to see that as a real betrayal of the deal they made. Mike, while still a strong advocate for the players, never went through that. … By 2006, we had a much more collaborative relationship with the union, and I would expect 2011 to be similar.”
The issues dominating the 2011 talks, while not yet fully defined, are expected to center on refinements to the existing pact as opposed to the introduction of major new concepts. There is some dissatisfaction on both sides with elements of the annual first-year player draft and signing-bonus slot recommendations for draft picks. Luxury tax and revenue-sharing provisions will no doubt be revisited, as will the drug testing policy.
And it has not gone unnoticed in the players’ camp how their percentage of overall industry revenue, standing at 52 percent in 2008, has slipped slightly in recent years as baseball has grown to unprecedented heights. MLB players in the early part of the decade saw their salaries represent a percentage of league revenue that was in the high 50s to low 60s.
While comparisons with other leagues can be difficult — MLB is the only major league without a salary cap, and MLB clubs spend millions of dollars on player development for players in the minor leagues — the percentage for MLB players now trails comparable player marks in the other major U.S. professional sports.
Still, the players’ average salary of more than $3 million and the lack of a salary cap have made a revolution in two years unlikely.
“There’s a professional relationship now between the two sides that Mike has played a big role in and now, ongoing in his new role, will probably further promote,” said Andrew Zimbalist, Smith College economics professor, a former consultant to the union and frequent author on industry issues, including Selig’s tenure as commissioner. “But I think the overall growth in the game is the strongest factor that’s going to keep this on the tracks. It’s reasonable to assume Mike is going to grease the wheels, but nobody really wants to disrupt the gravy train. I think everybody is still really chastened by what happened in ’94 and saw the damage that caused.”
Weiner himself said he is prepared, after more than two decades as a behind-the-scenes operator, to assume the high-profile demands of the executive director role.
“If the players select me, I understand I’ll be the public face of the organization in a way that I haven’t been before,” he said. “I don’t run from that and understand that comes with the territory.”