IRVING, Texas — The baseball industry has pulled the plug on itself.
Late Wednesday night, before Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement expired at 11:59 p.m., the 30 MLB owners voted to lock out their labor force and, effective at 12:01 a.m., start the sport’s first work stoppage in 26 years.
MLB informed the MLB Players Association that the players were being locked out, effectively turning out the lights on a business that is four months from playing regular season games.
The decision snapped a run of labor peace marked mostly by nearly uninterrupted revenue growth of the industry over the last decade and half. It’s the fourth lockout in MLB history, and the ninth overall.
The choice to lock out the players certainly did not come out of the blue. Three days of face-to-face talks here essentially failed, with neither side budging from long dug-in positions on core economic issues.
In a letter to fans, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed his disappointment that “despite the league’s best efforts,” it could not reach a deal with the players.
”We hope that the lockout will jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time,” wrote Manfred. “This defensive lockout was necessary because the Players Association’s vision for Major League Baseball would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive. It’s simply not a viable option.
“From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.”
In response to the decision, the MLBPA wrote that the lockout decision was “specifically calculated to pressure Players into relinquishing rights and benefits, and abandoning good faith bargaining proposals that will benefit not just Players, but the game and industry as a whole.”
“This drastic and unnecessary measure will not affect the Players’ resolve to reach a fair contract,” said Players Association Tony Clark in a statement. “We remain committed to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that enhances competition, improves the product for our fans, and advances the rights and benefits of our membership.”
After the last two five-year CBAs were seen as favoring the owners, the players in this round of bargaining sought more substantive changes, focusing on shifting salaries to younger players, increasing the minimum salaries, and tweaking service-time rules.
The owners, who are largely satisfied with the overall economic structure as it is, have not responded positively to the players’ proposals. The players, in turn, have been underwhelmed by the owners’ proposed solutions.
The sides have been bargaining for most of this year.
While there were never any indications that talks were advancing, at least some hope had been held out that a visit from the MLB negotiators and the seven members of the owners’ labor policy committee to the players’ annual meetings might move the needle.
That hope withered by Wednesday afternoon, when a last-ditch, seven-minute conversation between the leaders of each side’s bargaining group ended with the MLB contingent, without comment, walking briskly out of the hotel.
Negotiations could resume as soon as the sides want. A lockout status has no bearing on talks continuing, and in theory its implementation is intended to have players negotiate with more urgency. With the baseball calendar still near the beginning of the off-season, it is doubtful either side considers an actual loss of spring training or regular season games to be a given.
It’s far from a remote possibility, though.
The union has been told that the owners will never agree to changes to the six-year minimum it takes for a player to become a free agent, changes to the revenue-sharing system, and changes to rules regarding service-time transactions, according to a source familiar with the union’s position.
In addition, the source said, if the union drops those requests, the owners in turn will make unspecified binding proposals in other areas, including the competitive-balance tax and reserve system.
An article headlined “The latest on the CBA negotiations” on MLB’s website Wednesday morning prompted the source to offer the union’s perspective on the sides’ differences.
The article said the union “hasn’t moved away from its original proposal from May,” a statement the source disputed. On Tuesday, according to the source, the union made a number of proposals the owners said they did not agree with and would not counter.
Among the proposed changes were, for the first time, an agreement from the union for expanded playoffs if they are part of a larger package. The format offered by the union is different from what the owners are seeking.
Regarding the pursuit of broader changes to core economic issues such as shortening service time to become a free agent and service-time manipulation, the union has seen the owners’ responses of an age 29½ minimum to become a free agent and elimination of arbitration in favor of a pool of money for younger players as radical and unresponsive.
The union agreed to advertising patches on uniforms. It also proposed what it deemed a modest increase in the minimum salary and a small increase in the competitive-balance tax. The source said the union has not received any proposals from MLB regarding on-field changes such as pitch clocks, defensive shifts, and automated strike zones.
Mets pitcher Max Scherzer, one of eight members of the executive subcommittee that is the top-level bargaining unit of the players, said incentivizing winning and eliminating tanking are central to the players’ wish list for the next CBA.
“Adjustments have to be made to bring up the competition,” he said. “When we don’t have that, we have issues.
“We’re trying to make the game better, more competitive. We’re absolutely committed to doing that. It’s just not me, it’s everybody. It’s obvious to all of the players.”