Changing of the Guard

The announcement last week that Donald Fehr would be leaving his post next spring as Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association offers an opportunity to reflect on the role of labor unions in professional sports, in particular in the National Pastime. Fehr said that he would propose Michael Weiner as his successor, an absolutely splendid choice.

First, some disclaimers. I have known Don and Mike for 20 years and their counterpart, Rob Manfred on management side, for almost as long. They are all remarkable men who have transformed labor relations in Major League Baseball from guerrilla warfare into a thriving partnership. Collectively, they should be acknowledged as among the finest labor relations professionals in the country's history. Don Fehr and Rob Manfred came to my Sports Law class when I taught at the Harvard Law School, and I recently appeared on a sports business panel with Mike Weiner at Seton Hall Law School.

Friendships aside, sports labor unions, like the MLBPA, have achieved their goal of giving voice to the interests and concerns of those talented athletes who make a living as entertainers. Under the leadership of Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr, the Players Association has become the strongest trade union in America at a time when unions are hurting. The PA's success was not the result of weak leadership on management side. If anything, club owners resisted facing the reality of union solidarity far longer then they should have.

At first, club owners could not believe that the players would follow Miller, a Brooklyn-born economist who came to the PA from the Steelworker's staff. The owners resisted all calls to loosen the reserve system that had kept player salaries comparatively low for a century until, in 1975, an arbitrator "interpreted" their system out of existence. It was Miller's greatest triumph, bringing the free market to the setting of player salaries. (Fans who complain about the size of players' paychecks should remember that it is the owners who negotiate those salaries, not the union. Also, studies prove that high salaries do not cause high ticket prices. In fact, clubs charge what they can for tickets and free agent players then negotiate their salaries.)

Don Fehr's greatest success came in pressing the PA's case against the collusion of the club owners which management used as a way to hold down free agent salaries. Two arbitrators found that management had repeatedly violated their agreement with the union.

The 1994-95 strike put the union's mettle to the ultimate test. Commissioner Bud Selig led the owners into what turned out to be one final test of economic strength and fought the union to a draw. It was only through the intervention of the National Labor Relations Board and Judge Sonia Sotomayor's enlightened and informed ruling that the game recovered its equilibrium.

When the collective bargaining agreement came up for renegotiation in 2002, everyone was sure that another work stoppage was inevitable. I was the only person who suggested on national television that I thought they would reach an agreement, and that was because I knew that Mike Weiner and Rob Manfred were representing the parties at the negotiating table. Bargaining through the night, they charted a new course for baseball labor relations, one that has produced increased profits and revenue sharing for the owners and an increasingly healthy labor relations system. While the "scandal" over performance enhancing drugs has sidetracked the media, most fans are simply delighted with the state of the National Game and pleased that the future looks promising.

Thanks, Don.