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Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Marvin Miller, the one-time Steelworkers Union economist and the man behind the modern baseball player’s union — and perhaps indirectly all North American professional athletes’ unions — died last month aged 95.

In 1966, Mr. Miller went to work as the executive director of a fledgling Major League Baseball players’ association, which, over the course of two decades, he transformed into a powerhouse of a real labour union.

Sometime ago, I was at a dinner with Dick Moss, the association’s general counsel that Martin Miller brought with him from the Steelworkers Union. He told me the story of Mr. Miller’s initial retention by the players. Out of concern for the prospect of placing the players in the hands of a traditional trade unionist, there was a discussion of offering Mr. Miller the job of executive director if he accepted as general counsel a New York-based lawyer named Richard Nixon. The two men met but Mr. Miller told the association he wanted Mr. Moss for the job. Of course, two years later, Richard Nixon secured the Republican Party’s nomination for president and the rest is history.

When Mr. Miller was campaigning for the baseball association job in 1966, he traveled to spring training venues to arrange meetings with players. Once appointed as executive director, one of his first tasks was to negotiate an agreement with Topps — the baseball card company — which paid players modest sums for the right to use their pictures. Revenue from that deal helped to fund the association.

Over the years, through a series of strikes that led to labor agreements with arbitration clauses, Mr. Miller exponentially enhanced player remuneration and benefits. And it was the arbitration clauses that lead to the undoing of the famous ‘reserve clause’, which precluded players — once their personal contracts were over — from offering their services to the highest bidder. An arbitrator’s decision — which freed players from the restraints of that clause — changed the fortunes of teams such as the New York Yankees, which were willing to bid with big dollars. Players became multi-millionaires and newspaper sport pages turned into financial reports.

A few years back when I joined the board of the Peggy Browning Fund, an organization named after a union member of the National Labor Relations Board, which held a reception honoring Marvin Miller. Many of the players that Mr. Miller had first met during his early spring training tours attended. Brooks Robinson, the great third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, whose glove sucked baseballs with the efficiency of a vacuum cleaner, and Jim Bouton, the former Yankee pitcher who exposed the allegedly drunken and drug-fuelled exploits of fellow players in his seminal 1970 book, “Ball Four”, were among the notable.

In his speech, Mr. Miller talked about preparing for his remarks by researching Peggy Browning, who was appointed by President Clinton to the labor relations board in 1994. He said he was surprised to learn that since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, Peggy Browning was the first trade union lawyer appointed to the board. (Of course since 1994 there have been several more, including Sara Fox, Wilma Liebman, Craig Becker, and the board’s current chairman, Mark Pearce.)

Mr. Miller opined that this was a signal that in the political sphere, labor really was not being adequately recognized as an entity to be reckoned with. And for him, the answer was that labor would not have complete political strength without there being a labor party. While strong labor parties exist in other countries, there is no strong labor party in the US.  The late Tony Mazzochi, a great labor leader with the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union, tried to start one, but his efforts fizzled after two conventions.  Both Mr. Miller and Tony Mazzochi understood the importance of organizing workers at the grassroots. In some respects, while the idea of a labour party is a grand idea, it is more of a metaphor for a need to go back to basics and generate grassroots support for collective employee action.

After President Obama was first elected in 2008, organized labor pinned its future on passage of a proposed Employee Free Choice Act, which it hoped would enable the expeditious organization of workers. But those efforts were fruitless, as the legislation died in congress. This was no surprise. The truth is that the US Congress, as it did in 1935, has historically passed legislation to curtail the power of labour, not to enhance it. Indeed, as Marvin Miller understood, workers only secure benefits — including contracts with arbitration clauses — if they are organized at the grassroots.

While American labor unions have, for some time, contemplated legislation that would enable them to organise and increase their ranks and market share, there is less talk these days of that strategy as a means of securing enhanced worker empowerment. As leaders like Marvin Miller and Tony Mazzochi understood, power comes from the floor of the workplace, or in Mr. Miller’s case, the playing field. Whether that will ever happen again in the US as it did in the spring of 1966 is another story.

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