Power Struggle: Behind MLB’s labor talks and the clash of personalities that could shape the sport for years to come
Even with all the bombastic words, angry letters and public bickering, Major League Baseball and the players association appeared to be inching toward a deal to salvage the 2020 season after Commissioner Rob Manfred flew to Arizona last week for a one-on-one, face-to-face discussion with MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark.
Befitting the ongoing battle between the two sides, within hours even that optimism had eroded in the face of disagreements over what had been agreed to in the desert. MLB said the framework of a deal was in place. The union emphatically disputed that characterization. The truth, then, was that even if and when baseball’s lost spring — one marked by a nasty public spat that has tarnished the game and its leaders on both the management and union sides — ends and play resumes, this is part of a familiar tug of war that portends even more acrimony before the CBA expires on Dec. 1, 2021, and possibly beyond.
Manfred and Clark are the recognizable faces of baseball’s deep-rooted labor issues, and the two on the receiving end of the public scorn. But it’s the clash between the lead negotiators on both sides — both of whom figure to stay in their current roles beyond next year — that has amplified concerns that the sport will one day suffer its first labor stoppage since 1994.
The absence of trust and open dialogue between MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem and the union’s lead negotiator, Bruce Meyer, is expected to make what was already slated to be arduous CBA negotiations over the next year even more rancorous. To have return-to-play negotiations unfold with this sour tenor amid an economic and health crisis, one source familiar with the negotiations said, is “horrific,” adding that the communication style must change when the two sides confront even thornier issues like service time manipulation and competitive integrity during CBA talks.
Insiders noted the two sides barely spoke in recent months while theoretically working toward a way to play a season in 2020. Once the sides agreed on March 26 to a plan in which players would receive fully prorated salaries for the length of any season, all subsequent discussions have been tinged with mistrust. The process included dueling sternly worded missives and proposals sent via email — and leaked to the media — that were quickly disregarded as non-starters by either side.
With the relationship fraught in distrust, neither side felt even comfortable picking up the phone to call the other. Between a May 31 video call comprising Manfred, Halem, Clark and Meyer, there was little verbal communication between the two sides until Manfred’s journey to meet Clark on June 16. Instead negotiations were largely handled over email, and aside from virtual meetings on May 11 (which also included players) and May 31, direct dialogue has been virtually nonexistent. Manfred has taken the lead role for MLB in meetings with the union, a source close to the union said.
It signals a new chapter in the decades-long tense relationship between the two sides. Perhaps one could have seen it coming when the union tapped Meyer, a longtime sports law attorney and a litigator who came from the NHLPA and had worked with the NBPA and NFLPA as well, in August 2018 with a focus on negotiating and enforcing the CBA. After the league bested the union on large CBA issues such as new penalties for teams that exceed the luxury tax in the 2016 negotiations, Meyer was summoned to not let the league bully the union any more. The union needed a win and it seemed Clark would do whatever he could to not lose again in the next round.
As early as last year, MLB’s negotiating team viewed Meyer as a “hired gun” with no appetite to find middle ground on any of the critical issues. It viewed him as a lawyer with “no creativity” regarding pivotal big picture issues like service time and someone who was hellbent on letting negotiable issues fester and lead to a potential work stoppage down the road.
MLB’s issue with Meyer is that it doesn’t believe he budges on any issue of consequence. For evidence, league officials point to the union’s refusal to back off its stance of full prorated salaries for players in a 2020 season. The two sides had agreed to just such an arrangement in late March, only to have MLB seek further concessions once the pandemic dragged on and the size of its losses became clearer.
To that end, MLB projected to yield $2.9 billion in revenue this season and contends it stands to lose an average of $640,000 per game during a shortened season played in empty ballparks.
Sources close to the owners said the union did not adequately inform all players that the March 26 agreement on players receiving prorated salaries was not final. The union refutes that assertion.
Still, labor insiders view Meyer as exactly what the union needed. Experienced in labor law and unbending, and his approach has resulted in a fully galvanized union.
Agents agreed that Clark’s status was boosted by Meyer’s style, and the union’s solidarity was rock solid. “I think the players are well over 100% behind Tony,” said one veteran MLB player agent last week. Even agents who were initially doubtful of the strategy by the MLBPA’s top brass changed their tune in mid-June. “Tony played this right,” a second agent said.
Players were buoyed by Clark and Meyer refusing salary cuts over the fully prorated share of their salaries for games played. Agents also said Clark earned additional respect from players when, on the evening of Saturday, June 13, he told the league the union was done negotiating and to give the players a time and date to report.
Many baseball players, including some the game’s biggest stars, reiterated the message. “Tell us when and where!!” Angels centerfielder Mike Trout added to a retweet of an MLBPA statement by Clark saying players were “disgusted” by Manfred’s negotiating strategy.
“They woke a sleeping dog,” one agent said of the players’ reaction. “And that dog is pissed.”
The union has also cited issues and frustrations with the experienced Halem, who was part of CBA extensions in 2011 and 2016. A 1991 graduate of Harvard Law School, Halem joined the league in 2007 and has won Manfred’s deep trust in negotiations. He has been painted by some who have engaged in contentious negotiations against him — including Minor League Baseball — as ruthless and dismissive at times. The union believes Halem misled it about projected league revenue and expense figures, is disingenuous in his comments and enacts a strategy intended to break the union. Meyer told Halem in a June 13 letter that “as far as how you have conducted negotiations, and without getting into all of your underhanded tactics to circumvent the union, your approach has been one delay tactic after another.”
A source also said that Meyer was particularly rankled at June 13 reports, including one in Sports Business Journal, that MLB was near a deal with Turner Sports on an extension of their media rights deal with a 40% increase. The union had requested additional financial documents from the league last month, including revenue information related to regional sports networks, ballpark villages, MLB Advanced Media and the nature of discussions with television partners. A source close to the union said lawyers specifically requested and did not receive information related to the extension of MLB’s media rights deal with Turner. Hearing about it from media reports bristled the union and contributed to Meyer firing off one of his nastiest letters to date.
The back-and-forth was more pointed at times. When MLB decided against formally proposing the revenue-sharing plan that was floated, a source close to the negotiating team said it opted against it because it didn’t feel the union was in the proper “mindset” and was apt to become emotional. The union took offense to what it has sometimes perceived as a condescending attitude toward Clark, a former player and a non-lawyer. When relayed to a source close to Meyer, the source seethed at MLB’s approach and said, “What a bunch of bullshit.”
But Manfred’s style also drew critics. While he was pilloried by national media for his failure to get a deal, and by players for his negiotiating approach, it was also his PR strategy that was questioned. Over a week in giving two national interviews on ESPN, he went from pegging the chances of having a 2020 season as “100 percent” to five days later saing he was “not confident” there would be a season and criticized the union in a response heavy on legalese. One management-side lawyer who asked for anonymity as he does not speak publicly on other league negotiations said, “What he said on TV was problematic,” adding that it emboldened the players, as the “union now has a rallying cry to be focused on.”
All of this rancor doesn’t portend any path of peaceful coexistence, experts feel. “It’s highly unlikely the relationship will be positive any time soon,” said Shapiro Negotiations Institute CEO Andres Lares, who has advised pro sports teams for more than a decade on player contracts, trades and sponsorships. “Not only because they cost themselves a lot of money due to this back-and-forth, but also because it has been a particularly bitter negotiation, all in public, which is hard to recover from. It certainly can happen but it will take time. Both have already lost time, public opinion, trust in each other and ultimately worsened the situation for their CBA negotiations in 2021.”
Both Meyer and Halem are expected to remain in their current roles long enough that this first battle will hardly be their only one. Insiders are watching to see if they can develop any kind of working relationship that will ensure MLB’s run of labor peace — the longest in professional sports and by far the longest the sport has enjoyed since the union rose to prominence under Marvin Miller more than half a century ago — remains unbroken.
Staff writer Liz Mullen contributed to this report.