MLB labor dispute: Baseball appears headed for first work stoppage in decades

Unlike the NFL, NBA and NHL, Major League Baseball has enjoyed 26 years of labor peace.

Collective bargaining agreements (CBA) have been ratified without jeopardizing the regular season or post-season. But that streak appears to be headed for an end once the collective bargaining agreement with the player’s union expires on Dec. 1 at 11:59 p.m. ET.

According to the Associated Press, Commissioner Rob Manfred has signaled that team owners are prepared to lock the players out if no agreement is reached by the deadline. It would mark the first work stoppage in pro baseball since the 1994-95 season, when the MLB Players Association went on strike midseason and caused the World Series to be canceled for the first time in 90 years.

Rob Parker, a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America and FOX Sports Radio co-host of "The Odd Couple," spoke with FOX Television Stations and said that strike had long-lasting, negative impacts on the players and the owners. The fans were slow to forgive.

"Not good. That was a bad time in baseball," Parker explained. "If it wasn’t for (Sammy) Sosa and (Mark) McGuire and their homerun chase, baseball was damaged by that. For a lot of people, it was the first time we hadn’t seen a World Series that year."

According to the Associated Press, Manfred shared similar thoughts last week when he said, "I don’t think ’94 worked out too great for anybody." And he hinted MLB would take a stance similar to other leagues that have had locked players out long before the labor dispute could threaten the games.

"I think when you look at other sports, the pattern has become to control the timing of the labor dispute and try to minimize the prospect of actual disruption of the season. That’s what it’s about. It’s avoiding doing damage to the season," Manfred said.

Parker believes a work stoppage is risky. He said the pandemic has been a rough road for pro sports and despite being at home more, people found other things to do. 

"People weren’t watching the games as much as you would have thought, right? Being at home, ratings suffered and whatnot," Parker said. "So, you’ve got to be real careful. It’s tricky. If you turn some people off, they might say ‘I’m not going back to a baseball game.’"

"There will be some of those people who will be just so fed up and frustrated, even though we’ve had such a long period of smooth sailing as far as labor and CBA," he continued.

MLB and the players’ union both declined to comment on this report. Even so, both sides appear ready to face a work stoppage for the sake of their beliefs.

Here’s a look at what a CBA is, what its expiration means and what's at stake in this work stoppage.

What is a collective bargaining agreement?

A CBA is a contract between an employer and the union representing the employees. They’re common in many industries and professional sports is no different.

Unions and leagues use CBAs to determine things like the division of league revenue between team owners and players, the number of practices conducted, the structure of contracts, the number of regular-season and playoff games and more.

Not only does MLB have one, but they’re also commonplace in the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLS. Even referees have CBAs and occasionally go through work stoppages — which occurs when the contract expires.

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A detailed view of a pair of official Rawlings Major League Baseball baseballs with the imprinted signature of Robert D. Manfred Jr., the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

What happens during a work stoppage?

The simple answer is negotiating.

Labor disputes between billionaire owners and millionaire players often leave fans feeling shorted. For as long as it lasts, games cannot be played, team practices cannot take place and teams won’t be able to sell tickets.

Between 1972 and 1995, baseball was interrupted by eight work stoppages. The last one lasted 7 1/2-months.

"It’s unprecedented actually, in baseball, how long we’ve gone without any issues," Parker said.

The closest MLB has come to another stoppage was in 2002, when an agreement was reached on Aug. 30 about 3 1/2 hours before players had been set to strike. That marked the first agreement without a stoppage since 1969.

What’s the difference between a lockout and a strike?

A lockout is a bargaining chip used by the owners to pressure players into agreeing to a deal. The owners will refuse players access to team facilities.

A strike is essentially the same thing, only it's a weapon players use against the owners. Players will refuse to play games or practice or meet at teem facilities.

In either case, players do not get paid. Owners ordinarily suffer financially, but they do have a seldom-used workaround to labor disputes.

On rare occasions, leagues have hired temporary replacement players during work stoppages. The NFL famously did this in the 1987 season while the players were on strike.

Replacement players famously took the field from Weeks 4 to 6 that season. More recently, the NFL hired replacement referees during the 2012 referee lockout.

They, too, lasted three weeks. The infamous "fail mary" called an end to the labor dispute.

On the final play of the Sept. 26, 2012, in the game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks, referees gave conflicting verdicts on a pass caught in the endzone by Golden State and M.D. Jennings. The replacement refs also missed an offensive pass interference call, which would have given the Packers the victory.


Wide receiver Golden Tate, No. 81 of the Seattle Seahawks, makes a catch in the end zone to defeat the Green Bay Packers on a controversial call by the officials at CenturyLink Field on Sept. 24, 2012, in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr

What’s at stake during this labor dispute?

The MLBPA is seeking drastic changes to the CBA in this round of negotiations. Team owners, however, are keen on protecting the status quo — with only minor alterations.

The biggest issue is money — specifically, how it’s divided between players and owners. Parker said the MLB reached $10.7 billion in revenue before pandemic-era precautions slashed revenue.

Even though the top-paid baseball players have contracts much larger than the other American pro sports, players as a whole feel like their share of league revenue has not increased as much as the owners’ share.

And again, only the top players who have satisfied six-year MLB service time provision in the current CBA are eligible for those massive contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Players with less than three years of service time often make less than $1 million. And those between three and six years are eligible for arbitration — which can yield them several million dollars, but not likely the mega-deals free agents get.

A player is not eligible for free agency until he completes his sixth year of service time, which Parker said is a threshold the players want to see lowered.

"If you’re not going to give them the money they want, the bigger share, then they want to become free agents sooner. It takes six years now. That’s the thing, six years, you’ve got to play for almost no money," Parker said. "Think about Aaron Judge and the impact he’s had with the Yankees. He’s never gotten a big payday."


Aaron Judge, No. 99 of the New York Yankees, in action against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 1, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Judge is a three-time all-star, was the American League (AL) Rookie of the Year in 2017 and won the Silver Slugger Award in 2017 and 2021. This year, the Yankees paid him $10,175,000. Last year, it was $8.5 million.

But before he became eligible for arbitration, Judge earned $544,500 his rookie year, $622,300 in 2018 and $684,300 in 2019.

He’s expected to command a massive contract once he becomes a free agent following the 2022 season. But by that point, he will be in his 30s — hence the MLBPA’s desire to see the service time requirement lowered.

Parker said players want to see provisions that reduce the owners’ ability to tank — which involves intentionally losing to secure better draft positioning. He said teams have filled their rosters with young, inexperienced players and shied away from veterans who command a higher salary, all in an effort to keep payroll down.

The union also wants to see a universal designated hitter (DH), Parker said. Traditionally, only the AL allows the DH, but the National League (NL) experimented with the DH during the shortened 2020 season.

Parker said players believe adding a DH would create another job for veteran players on each of the 15 NL teams. Owners and baseball purists are against such a move.

But a change the owners are in favor of is expanding the playoffs. 

"They want expanded playoffs. If you remember, a couple of years ago in the pandemic, 16 teams made the playoffs. There’s more revenue there," Parker said. "Remember, they don’t pay players for the postseason and then they get this playoff money that they (owners) get to split."

With the current CBA expiring a month into the offseason, Parker believes the owners have the most leverage to work with. It will be months before the players are in any position to threaten games.

"You can’t strike in the offseason. There’s nothing going on, Parker explained. So your strike would have to be in spring training or the start of the regular season, which could then jeopardize games and loss of revenue."

Still, he said if the talks linger a few months, the players could find themselves in a position of strength.

This story was reported from Atlanta.