William Gould IV found nothing surprising as he took stock of baseball’s labor battle.
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” he said with a laugh. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Gould’s perspective is informed by unusual experience. In 1995, as chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, he cast the deciding vote to authorize the NLRB to seek an injunction against Major League Baseball for unfair labor practices amid the strike by the Players Association. The injunction was granted by then-federal district court judge Sonia Sotomayor, ultimately resulting in the end of MLB’s last work stoppage prior to this winter.
That history gives Gould, a professor emeritus at Stanford Law School, an unusual vantage point from which to view the current labor dispute. Gould found little surprising about a fight between players and owners over money using familiar playbooks.
For decades, owners have used lockouts as offseason tactics, mindful that lost games at the start of the season are less costly to them than summer, late-season, and postseason games that feature greater attendance and attention. Players, by contrast, tend to strike late in order to maximize leverage in a more valuable part of the schedule.
Yet while disagreements between players and owners have a long history, there are elements that distinguish this work stoppage from the one in which Gould’s NLRB intervened.
First, the pendulum has swung away from the players, who made repeated gains from the 1970s through 1990s, to owners who have seen their revenues since grow at a rate that far exceeds player salaries (which have declined in recent years). Second, even with that advantage, it is the owners who initiated the lockout for what they described as defensive purposes.
“[The lockout] really wasn’t [necessary],” said Gould. “It made sense in that the lockout could be viewed, as [MLB commissioner Rob Manfred] characterizes it, as defensive in anticipation of union economic pressure later in the season at a time that would be propitious for the union, given the heavy reliance of the owners on the playoffs for revenues.
“But never so far as I’m aware did Manfred or any owner say to the union, ‘Hey, give us a no-strike commitment in August and September.’ And that suggests that their marching orders were to hold the line and to retain their advantage, and this was the best way and time to do it.”
According to an industry source, there was never a discussion between MLB and the Players Association about the possibility of not locking out the players in exchange for a no-strike commitment.
The substance of the disagreement, too, is not comparable to 1994-95. Then, owners were trying to topple the sport’s economic framework. Players and owners struggled to negotiate given that they sought completely different compensation systems — players to a free market, owners a revenue-sharing system that included payroll caps.
In 2022, players and owners are arguing chiefly over dollar figures on common topics: the luxury-tax threshold, minimum salaries, and the amount of money available to pre-arbitration players from bonus pools. More difficult topics that might typically cause work stoppages — changing the timing of arbitration or free agency, or fundamentally changing either the revenue-sharing or luxury-tax systems — fell by the wayside as sticking points.
“There is no concept which is at issue between the parties,” said Gould.
Thus, he saw a more hopeful resolution for this work stoppage than the government and court intervention needed nearly three decades ago. Then, MLB unilaterally declared an impasse and implemented a new economic system; when players didn’t cave, they brought replacements into spring training. MLB’s heavy-handed approach resulted in the union’s NLRB complaint, which in turn resulted in Sotomayor granting an injunction and restoring the terms of the 1990-93 collective bargaining agreement.
This time, the sides talked and altered their positions over nine days of meetings in Florida. That suggests negotiations are occurring, meaning that a declaration of an impasse or NLRB complaints are unlikely.
“I think that the lockout itself is likely to be viewed as lawful, despite the fact that the owners have been rather transparent in not calling upon the union to do a pledge not to strike,” said Gould.
Of course, that could change. With the decision to keep the lockout in place and cancel games, one or both sides could change positions on certain subjects and move further away from middle ground than they were in Florida.
Based on the reported substance of negotiations to date, that outcome seems unlikely.
“I don’t think there’s likely to be an impasse in the foreseeable future,” said Gould. “I think that probably we’re going to have — I don’t know this for sure — fairly expeditiously a resumption of negotiations. And I think the process is such that the parties are likely to cut a deal. I don’t know how this deal can be sold to the players who have become at such a relative disadvantage, but given the fact that there been modifications [to offers] on both sides, given the fact that the underlying dynamics are that at this time of the year, the overriding concern to most of the players is to play and that many of them will never have another chance, taking those things together makes it unlikely that they are going to be at an impasse in the near future.”
Even so, as much as he understands the dynamics of the dispute and sees the sides working toward an agreement, Gould’s sensibilities as a fan — his enthusiasm for the Red Sox dates to their pennant-winning season of 1946 — are offended by the idea that the stoppage has reached a point of canceling regular-season games.
“I think of FDR in the 1930s talking about a plague on both your houses,” said Gould, referencing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reaction to a 1937 steel strike. “It seems so tragic that this game, that is so filled with beauty and grace and skill, is taken away from us by people who have so much more than 99 percent of those who are interested and want to sit in the stands and view it on TV.”