NEW YORK — US Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh was working back channels on the baseball labor front long before this past week.
But when the talks stalled and collapsed, and the 2022 baseball season stood on the brink of real peril, Walsh made a strongly worded call to the owners on Tuesday, encouraging them to try even harder to get a deal done.
With a war raging in Ukraine and tough domestic issues to deal with, the country did not need the sideshow of bickering baseball owners and players.
“I know the President is very glad this issue is resolved, and that we’re going to have baseball in America,” said Walsh by phone Friday night. “A lot of people love baseball, a lot of people love this time of year, a lot of people are grateful, and I’m happy this is resolved.”
Not long after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred imposed a lockout Dec. 2, Walsh began making a series of roughly 10-15 calls combined to the two sides the next three months.
He met with Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, at Walsh’s Dept. of Labor offices in Washington, D.C.
In late January, he had dinner with Manfred, lead MLB negotiator Dan Halem, Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, president and CEO Sam Kennedy, and Daniel Koh, Walsh’s chief of staff. Walsh kept repeating the same message to all: Keep talking and get the deal done.
“My role quite honestly was behind the scenes, just encouraging both sides to stay at the table,” said Walsh. “I offered if they wanted me to help unofficially or officially to try and come to a resolution to sit both sides down, I would. I didn’t have to do that. They stayed at the table, they got the agreement done and that, quite honestly, is the best negotiation we can have, when both sides stay at the table.”
Clark on Friday said Walsh served a useful role.
“The dialogue that we did have with the Labor Secretary was beneficial, particularly against the backdrop of the interests that we all have in getting baseball back on the field,” said Clark.
Halem also expressed appreciation to Walsh’s “commitment to being available to us during this process and for his passion towards helping the parties get the game back on the field.”
Kennedy, who has maintained a relationship with Walsh dating back to his administration, lauded Walsh’s involvement.
“Having the Secretary of Labor of the United States, someone with direct access to the President as an internal advisor helped both sides talk through things that were important to both sides,” said Kennedy. “The Labor Secretary was in touch with both sides of the negotiation. He developed a good relationship with Rob Manfred and Dan Halem and Tony Clark and the union representatives for one reason — he wanted to see a deal get done. He was proactive, reaching out to both sides and used himself as a sounding board.”
The day after the grueling labor battle concluded, the Players Association said it had made “significant gains” in the new collective bargaining agreement.
And while the union could not make progress on some of the larger items on its agenda — such as shorter service time to free agency — it will try, try again in the future.
“It’s difficult, but we’re never going to give up on some of those things,” said MLBPA chief negotiator Bruce Meyer. “This is the labor process. We have determined adversaries on the other side, all of whom are billionaires and have enormous resources.”
Meyer ticked off a few items he said owners tried to include that the union fought off, including “attempts to cut back benefits, to increase competitive balance tax penalties dramatically at all levels and keep CBT thresholds mostly flat, to eliminate salary arbitration and extend their period of control over young players.”
Solidarity from the players, said Meyer, proved responsible not only for holding the line but for advancing their own positions.
“Players made significant gains in this agreement,” said Meyer. “As in any deal, there were some tradeoffs, and we always knew change would be incremental over time, but players can be proud of what they accomplished here and it sets up well to build on and continue to make gains in the future.”
The owners voted unanimously, 30-0, to ratify the CBA.
The players side, however, had a split vote, 26-12. Their electoral setup features 38 voters — the 30 team representatives plus the eight-member executive subcommittee — with simple majority rule. All eight subcommittee members voted against the CBA.
Clark disputed the suggestion that the vote reflected division in the ranks.
“You call it a division, I call it a healthy dialogue and conversation,” said Clark. “At the end of the day, each player — the player reps, the teams they represent, the executive subcommittee — all had a common goal in improving the system.
“I’m not going to get into internal deliberations, but rest assured the interests were the same as far as improving the system as a whole.”
Part of Thursday’s drama revolved around MLB’s insistence on making the international draft a topic of negotiation. The sides agreed to discuss it later this summer, with the owners offering elimination of draft-pick compensation as the giveback for its adoption.
The union, traditionally opposed to an international draft, does not sound particularly enthused about it.
“I’m not a fan of drafts in general,” said Clark. “Having said that, as a part of this agreement, we agreed to have a conversation about the possibility of an international draft. There’s no one rushing to put further restrictions on players, whether domestic or international.”
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Michael Silverman can be reached at email@example.com.