Recently, there have been a lot of talks about work strikes. The list is long and diverse: Sky Harbor Airport concession workers in Arizona, UAW John Deere workers in Iowa, Kaiser healthcare workers in Southern California, Wyndham hotel workers in Philadelphia, and daycare workers in Quebec. It could happen again this week: Major League Baseball may go on strike. What’s occurring here, and what can you learn from these negotiations?
Since the MLB work stoppage hasn’t taken place yet, but time is running out, let’s look at that situation more closely. This negotiation is between Major League Baseball (MLB; i.e., the owners) and the MLB Players Association (MLBPA; think: player’s union). The current agreement is set to expire at 11:59 pm ET on December 1. There are two major categories of issues being discussed: non-economic and economic. In the non-economic category, they’re negotiating things like the designated hitter in both leagues and other rules adjustments. In the economic category, they’re negotiating revenue share between owners and players, how revenue is calculated, minimum player salaries, and other pay-related issues.
According to sources close to the deal, MLB and the MLBPA have made progress on non-economic matters during their negotiations. But the economic issues will ultimately determine whether a new deal is reached by December 1 or whether the owners lock the players out. Short lockouts have happened before (1973, 1976, and 1990); in all those cases, the players were locked out of spring training — but no regular season games were missed. However, baseball's last work stoppage was the 1994-95 players' strike that wiped out nearly 1,000 regular season games and the entire ’94 postseason. The backlash of the 1994-95 strike was significant, and it wasn’t until the 1998 baseball season, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, that the game recovered.
The good news is, there have been lots of proposals going back and forth. According to Rob Manfred, Commissioner of MLB (per ESPN’s Jeff Passan), “I can tell you from the clubs’ perspective, we’re committed to continuing to offer proposals and suggestions in an effort to get to an agreement before December 1.” Why is that good news? In any negotiation, it’s easy to waste a lot of time arguing about opinions and points of view. Oftentimes, these differences are about how something came to be or how future events will unfold. Regardless, the best way to beat an argument is by making proposals. So, while the MLB and MLBPA can argue all they want about how revenues are calculated or what the profit share should be, no progress will be made without proposals.
The other good news is precedent. The ’94 strike was a disaster for all involved, and even though it was 27 years ago, it seems that neither side has forgotten the devastation that it caused, including backlash from fans. As Manfred told owners at their quarterly meetings, “I don’t think ’94 worked out too great for anybody.” With both sides having that kind of awareness of the external sanctions their fans could place on them, they should be motivated to get a deal done. In any negotiation, understanding the sanctions (fan backlash, for example) and the incentives (economic happiness for all) is critical to understanding your own leverage and power.
The bad news is, time is running out. According to Manfred, “We understand, I understand, that time is becoming an issue.” Sometimes negotiators can use time as a point of leverage in a negotiation. However, in this case, time is working against both parties. If there is a stoppage, they risk fan backlash, but they also have to stop all off-season signings and personnel decisions that are taking place now, which is not good for either side. So, in this case, time is truly working against both sides. When time starts to become a factor, panic and poor decision-making can come into play. Being aware of time constraints will help skilled negotiators avoid bad deals.
It’s anybody’s guess whether or not there will be a strike or a lockout this week. If by the time you read this, an agreement was reached before the deadline, then it’s likely because they kept the conversation moving along with progressive proposals, each building upon the other. If no deal is reached by the deadline, it’s likely because they stopped building on each other’s proposals, reverted to arguing, and lost track of time. Let’s hope for the former.
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