MLB lockout: Players reject offer of federal mediation
By James Wagner
With the prospect of spring training beginning in less than two weeks looking increasingly grim, the MLB believed a stalemate in negotiations with the players’ union over a new labor deal could be broken with an outside mediator. So last Thursday, the league asked the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service for its help in what would have been a nonbinding and voluntary process that is meant to offer suggestions — not settlements.
Frustrated with the owners’ proposals — or lack thereof — and knowing that a previous attempt at mediation was fruitless, the players’ union rejected the offer Friday. In doing so, the union had terse words for the league, which responded with a curt statement of its own.
During the negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement, and particularly since MLB owners locked out the players on Dec. 2, the sides have largely refrained from litigating their cases publicly, which has been a contrast from past negotiations.
But frustrations have continued to mount.
“Two months after implementing their lockout, and just two days after committing to players that a counterproposal would be made, the owners refused to make a counter, and instead requested mediation,” the players’ union said in a statement Friday.
The statement continued: “After consultation with our executive board, and taking into account a variety of factors, we have declined this request. The clearest path to a fair and timely agreement is to get back to the table. Players stand ready to negotiate.”
In a response emailed by a spokesman, the MLB said it was its goal to have players on the field and fans in the stands for spring training and opening day, slated for March 31.
“With camps scheduled to open in less than two weeks, it is time to get immediate assistance from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to help us work through our differences and break the deadlock,” the league’s statement said.
It added: “It is clear the most productive path forward would be the involvement of an impartial third party to help bridge gaps and facilitate an agreement. It is hard to understand why a party that wants to make an agreement would reject mediation from the federal agency specifically tasked with resolving these disputes, including many successes in professional sports. MLB remains committed to offering solutions at the table and reaching a fair agreement for both sides.”
Little progress has been made since negotiations resumed Jan. 13, the first time either side made a proposal — MLB in this case — over the economic sticking points since the lockout began Dec. 2. (The past five-year collective bargaining agreement expired Dec. 1.) In all, there have been only four known major negotiating sessions since the lockout began.
The latest was last Tuesday, when the union presented a proposal in person that made modest tweaks to its requests regarding service time manipulation — where major league-ready players are kept in the minors to maximize the amount of time they are under team control — and the creation of a bonus pool for players not yet eligible for salary arbitration. The players, though, maintained their stances on other issues, including in two areas that the MLB said it will not negotiate on: changes to revenue sharing among teams and salary arbitration eligibility.
Tuesday’s meeting was described as heated. The league told the union it would respond to its proposal, and the union expected a counterproposal.
On Thursday, the MLB — which believed it had already made several concessions to the players on matters such as a draft lottery, a prearbitration bonus pool, a scheme to curb service time manipulation and a universal designated hitter — sought outside help from a federal agency that has assisted in past labor disputes in other professional sports leagues, including the NHL and MLS.
The players, though, felt differently about the MLB’s tactic. During the 1994-95 players strike — the last work stoppage in baseball to cost regular-season games (more than 900) — a federal mediator stepped in at the urging of President Bill Clinton, but it proved unsuccessful. The union was dissatisfied with the mediator’s rationale and suggestions then, while the owners endorsed them.
(The federal mediator used during the 1981 MLB players strike was successful and later briefly served as the union chief.)
Asked by a fan why players refused mediation this time around, New York Yankees reliever Zack Britton, a top union representative, responded: “The history of mediation in MLB has been completely one-sided. That’s why MLB suggested it. Instead of trying to delay making proposals with this PR stunt, MLB should actually attempt to bargain.”
He wrote later in a different response to a fan, “We didn’t lock ourselves out. Spring training would be going on as normal in a few weeks if not for the lockout. We are plenty capable of training and negotiating a new CBA during spring.”
Britton’s tweets were part of what felt like a coordinated effort by players on social media on Friday. The union believed it had already made concessions to the MLB, and players have been frustrated that their average salary has not kept pace with team revenues.
“Seems to me like in order to get a Collective Bargaining Agreement done, you need to bargain … players remain waiting,” wrote Whit Merrifield, a star second baseman for the Kansas City Royals.
Max Scherzer, a star pitcher who signed a record deal with the New York Mets just before the lockout began, explained the players’ position in a series of tweets: “We don’t need mediation because what we are offering to MLB is fair for both sides,” he wrote. “We want a system,” he continued, “where threshold and penalties don’t function as caps, allows younger players to realize more of their market value, makes service time manipulation a thing of the past, and eliminate tanking as a winning strategy.”
With its offer of mediation rejected, the MLB was expected to weigh its next steps and talk directly to the union. Differences or not, the sides have a legal obligation to negotiate. The normal baseball calendar, though, remained at risk.