Michael Weiner, the head of baseball’s union, used a significant portion of his speech Wednesday at the National Press Club to voice support for organized labor across the country, arguing that depriving workers of bargaining rights is “fundamentally unfair” and counterproductive to efforts to revive the country’s economy.
Weiner, who helped negotiate a five-year collective bargaining agreement last fall that will extend baseball’s unprecedented run of labor peace to 21 years, spent nearly a quarter of his 20-minute speech (which was followed by a question-and-answer session) on the broader issue of labor relations nationwide — acknowledging beforehand his trepidation in going down such a path.
“I’m now torn between prudence and opportunity,” he said.
“Prudence tells a guy who has worked entire professional career in baseball to limit his remarks to baseball. On my other shoulder, opportunity tells me that I should at least try to relate baseball’s bargaining success to the broader world. This is the National Press Club, after all. It’s not the ‘Mike and Mike’ show.”
Weiner singled out recent legislative efforts in Wisconsin and Indiana to strip workers of bargaining rights, saying such measures are unfair, “in part because our current economic difficulties were not caused by America’s working men and women.”
“It’s just not true that municipal workers making $40,000 per year caused the present fiscal crisis,” he said. “It’s unfair because depriving workers of their rights to organize and bargain deprives them of the only realistic leverage they have. It’s okay, even laudable, in this country for political candidates or for companies to have leverage because of their financial assets. It’s okay in this country to obtain leverage through a successful push for legislative or regulatory advantage.
“But why is it not acceptable for workers to exercise the only leverage they possess – to act collectively? If you take bargaining rights away from Wisconsin schoolteachers or Indiana factory workers, it leaves one side in a contest with no ability to compete…. The economic health of our country will not be revitalized by depriving workers of their voice.”
After speaking at length about baseball’s often contentious labor history, Weiner held up the sport’s current era of labor peace as an example of how collective bargaining can be productive for both workers and management, saying, “In 2011 baseball demonstrated that collective bargaining can produce a progressive and productive agreement if each party respects both the power and the ideas of its counterpart.”
“Collective bargaining in times such as these may be difficult, adversarial and contentious, but as demonstrated in baseball of all places, it is the surest path to mutually advantageous and potentially enduring solutions.”
From the Q&A:
Weiner addressed dozens of additional, baseball-related subjects, particularly during a fast-paced Q-and-A session with audience members. Among the highlights:
*Weiner, after first pointing out he was speaking for himself and not the union, argued that the Baseball Hall of Fame should include steroids users, as well as Pete Rose. The Hall, he said, “is for the best players that have ever played … It’s a museum. If you want to have some notation on their plaque that indicated that they were either judged to have used performance-enhancing substances, or [were] accused of having done that, so be it.”
*Weiner spoke at length about the sport’s new labor agreement, which was signed last November, about a month before the old one expired, pointing out that 238 different players participated in the negotiations. He also described the negotiations as “adversarial, and at times intensely so” – without going into detail.
“Conversations were heated and opinions expressed,” he said. “Meetings ended abruptly. People – owners, players, negotiators for both sides – got angry. We didn’t air [the disputes] in public, as we had in the past, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t argue.”
*Asked who might succeed Bud Selig as commissioner, Weiner cracked a joke about Selig’s seemingly open-ended tenure. “We’ll obviously wait with interest, 20, 30 or 40 years from now when Bud actually leaves,” he said.
*Weiner predicted the designated hitter would remain in the American League “for a long time,” saying neither side made any effort to change the DH rule during the recent bargaining talks. “I don’t think anyone would design an industry where one league has one set of rules, and the other has another, but I think that compromise… is here to stay for a long time.”
*Weiner shot down a question attempting to link players’ salaries to rising ticket prices, saying ticket prices “are set based on supply and demand for that product… They really don’t have anything to do with” players’ salaries.
*Weiner made no predictions about the outcome of ongoing negotiations between the Nationals and Orioles over Washington’s share of revenue produced by their shared regional sports network, MASN. But he acknowledged the importance of those revenues for both franchises in the sport’s changing economic atmosphere.
“We’ve seen the local broadcasting rights go through the roof for team after team,” he said. “… I’m not going to try to predict how the negotiation involving the Nationals, the Orioles and MASN is going to play out. All I’ll say is it will be a very important negotiation for both franchises.”