America's National Pastime: Class Struggle


With the start of baseball season around the corner, I thought I'd get my Dave Zirin on and talk a little about the politics of sports. I've always thought that labor disputes in professional sports are a great litmus test that can be very revealing about someone's general attitude toward labor and class.

That may sound odd at first, because the disputes between athletes and team owners seem so far removed from the struggles of ordinary workers. Even the lowest-paid Major League Baseball player draws a salary beyond what the vast majority of Americans could ever dream of.

But that's just why it's such a revealing case. Unlike, say, low-wage hotel workers, baseball players can't command sympathy just based on liberal feelings of charity or a generalized sense of rooting for the underdog. To understand what side you're on in sports labor disputes, you need to understand something about class and the power relations between workers and management.

A common reaction among the general public is to see sports labor disputes as pitting players against fans. The fan sees players drawing unimaginably large salaries and struggling for even more, and they interpret this as greed. But of course, siding against the players really just means siding with the owners, an even richer group of people. And holding down players' pay is less likely to reduce ticket prices than it is to increase owner profits--just look at the Florida Marlins, a team whose owners habitually under-spent on players and pocketed Major League Baseball's revenue sharing money until the players' union forced them to start spending more money.

If we're concerned about the extreme wealth of baseball players (and owners), the sensible response is to tax their income at a high rate. Those who oppose the players in their labor struggles with management are really just performing a more grandiose version of the same politics of resentment that causes people to attack union workers who have good jobs and benefits, rather than seeing the struggles of labor as part of a project to improve the situation of all workers rather than dragging everyone down to the same level of misery.

Too often, however, unions feed into this kind of resentment by protecting the privileges of their members at the expense of other workers. And baseball provides a good case study here as well. The Major League Baseball Players Association is a strong union, one which is supported by many players who are otherwise politically conservative. But the strategy of the union has, over the years, actually contributed to the unequal treatment of athletes within professional baseball.

Under the current labor agreement, Major League players must work for the league minimum salary for three years after they reach the majors. For the next three years, their salary is set through arbitration with the team. Only after six years can a player sign with another team as a free agent, which generally results in a big increase in their pay.

The baseball blogger and author Tom Tango had a nice post about this system recently, in which he noted that it greatly enriches one sub-group of players at the expense of others. That sub-group is the established stars who stick around baseball long enough to reach free agency, and the losers are all those who never make it that point and wash out of the league while they are still making the minimum. Since the younger players are making less, the free agents are able to command higher salaries. And since the players who stick in the majors are the only ones who are in the Major League Baseball Players Association, they are able to shift the union's strategy in their favor, and against the interests of all those guys who didn't last for three years.

Of course, that doesn't even address the minor leagues, where many players get paid at a level that would be considered low-wage labor even by non-sports standards. And baseball's minor league system looks great in comparison to sports like Football and Basketball that outsource their minor leagues to college sports, where players are compelled to play for free under the pretext of receiving an education.

For this system to change, the top players who dominate the union would have to think in terms of solidarity rather than narrow self-interest. The fact that they don't, however, doesn't make them all that different from many of the rest of us. When it comes down to players vs. owners, I know which side I'm on. But I also know that winning the class war is about more than signing good contracts and protecting the interests of union members. A myopic strategy that divides union members from non-members will ultimately hurt both.

And of course, in the long run we don't just want to get higher wages from the owners of Capital, we want to replace them altogether. That's why it's previously been argued in this space that professional sports franchises ought to be socialized.

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