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How To (Pretend To) Negotiate A Labor Deal

This idea was not my invention. I am merely an eyewitness to its application.

I was In "The Room Where It Happened," as Hamilton's gang might have sung it.

My eyeballs were open to the optical illusion at those moments, and I was being self-educated as a daily newspaper editor allowed into the sanctum sanctorum of labor negotiations.

My function? No power at all. Barely a hood ornament.

Now that the Major League Baseball season faces the real possibility of being stillborn, we will want to know why they could not keep the lights turned on, and who it was who pulled the plug.

That's the easy-peasy part.

It's all in Sun Tzu's 12th-century Chinese prescriptive The Art of War. The successful commander "recognizes strategic opportunities, and learns not to create opportunities for the enemy . . . They limit the cost of competition and conflict."

In the Chicago Cubs' case, it helps to have a franchise worth $2.3 billion to fund your army.

Who had the power and assets to stop an entire sports season? The owners did, just as owners automatically have the power to stall most labor deals as long they wish.

The art of the delayed deal is pretending you are negotiating when you actually aren't.

Why? It's leverage for the long-game future by people who know precisely where the financial chalk line is in the batter's box, even if the other side doesn't.

The players can be adept only at playing defense. They are more like good-field-no hit utility infielders.

The easy case can be made that MLB owners always were prepared to kill the season. They alone held the pin in Sun Tzu's grenade.

What the owners risked was losing money that would have made them even more obnoxiously rich. Players risk losing income they can never recoup in a getting-smaller-every-day career window.

Wins and losses are measurements of vulnerability. In the baseball scenario, the players only "war" leverage was the threat not to play. That, as it turned out, was no threat to the owners. The game was in stasis for months now.

For their part, the owners needed to sit still and pretend to be considering alternatives, a position of flexibility for which there is no evidence. The owners only managed to make their tactics so blatantly obvious that even Commissioner Rob Manfred was embarrassed.

That was an unforced error on a five-hop infield dribbler. Owners lost all deniability - plausible and otherwise.

But how does this work, and how do you pretend to negotiate without really negotiating?

Consider the human dynamics in the room where contract proposals with clear distinctions are being pushed and pulled.

There's always a First Pitch. The trick is to make the conditions and surrender so onerous that the employees could not possibly agree to them and remain respectable adults. Thus the cyanide pill is placed in the oatmeal and made to appear as though it's suicide.

It's not so much Sun Tzu as it is a Perry Mason script, and nearly as obvious in real life.

I know. I've seen it a half dozen times as an editor allowed to be present when corporate owners were dickering with the serfs. Editors have no real functions or authority in such talks. They are allowed in, to cultivate the appearance of management solidarity.

Editors in such circumstances are not players in the real game. The owners made the meaningful decisions elsewhere.

This face-to-face chat usually is Kabuki.

What Major League Baseball did to the players is what I've seen done consistently in other contexts: Seem to agree to one condition, then withdraw the agreement, pretend new pressures and conditions make that agreement unworkable, and then blame the union for being willful and intransigent.

It's how labor unions lose membership income, health benefits and pension contributions in negotiations.

In my experience, that tactic occasionally was so egregious that I'd sometimes offer a benefit suggestion that the union had not understood clearly and, in fact, would save jobs that otherwise could be eaten up by attrition and forced overtime.

So, what was Major League Baseball ownership doing in these talks that should seem obvious?

This is a routine application of math logic for negotiating union labor contracts. I'm only repeating someone else's description, but it certainly seems to apply to MLB owners.

The owners agreed in March to a system of prorated salaries based on how many games were played, if they ever were. We were all friends then.

Players essentially would make a percentage of what each of their deals would have been with a full schedule. Fewer games; less pay.

Then owners wanted a different deal: Pay much less if there are no fans in the stands. Let's pretend the previous agreement does not exist.

Buckle up for competing grievances and vast numbers of arbitrators. But first, the owners demand the union never seek arbitration.

It's essentially a pre-nup.

This is all very familiar.

In fact, I was eyewitness to several newsroom union negotiations with Hollinger (the old days) and the Sun-Times (later days). No matter which company spokesman is making the negotiating case, it always sounds like this:

OWNERS: Yes, we realize what we have agreed to pay you, but have a different idea. Times are very difficult and different now.

PLAYERS: Oh, how so?

OWNERS: Let's pay you $12.


OWNERS: How about $24 in pensions and $12 reduction in salary?


OWNERS: How about $2 increments in each of six payments?


OWNERS: We think $3 payments over four pay periods make some sense.


OWNERS: $6 payments twice?


OWNERS: Maybe 50 cents delivered 24 times?


OWNERS: A nickel in each of the next 1,200 pay periods? That flexibility would be great for everyone.

PLAYERS: No. Pay us what you agreed to pay us.

OWNERS: You players are not bargaining in good faith, and you are being so greedy. You are damaging America.

PLAYERS: Somebody call the NLRB.

Meanwhile, Wrigley Field, Guaranteed Rate Field and every other MLB venue - and every contractually affiliated minor league team - sits dark for a year, and COVID-19 gets the blame.

But is wasn't COVID-19. It was money.

Several owners sat in a room. Or took a Zoom chat. Or just wrote a detailed note to the Commissioner.

Whatever the mechanism, they would have calculated the central issue.

How much more or less would they lose by going dark than if they paid what their first deal demanded? They made a call. We get what we want, or we kill the season. Simple power mechanics and Sun Tzu military maneuvers.

Of course, we can always blame this on the coronavirus, though that's a little unfair, even to a deadly contagion. Someone soon will spin baseball's paternal self-immolation to a desire to protect the health and safety of fans and players. They'll use the exact phrase "fans and players alike."

That's just spin. What might be happening to baseball this summer is just as much human-made as bad luck.


Recently by David Rutter:

* Kris Bryant's Future Bar Trick.

* Mansplaining To A Millionaire.

* Status Check: Chicago Sports.

* The Week In WTF Redux: Blago Is Back Edition.

* What Is A Chicagoan Anyway?

* Glenn Beck's Turn In The Volcano.

* Only Science Will Bring Back Sports.

* I Loathe The Lockdown Protestors.

* Reopening Books.

* A Return To Abnormalcy.

* I'm Having A Down Day Emotionally. Here's Why.

* So Long, Jerry.

* A Special "Trump's Bible" Edition Of WTF.

* 5 Things An Angry Old White Man Wants To Say.

* An ANTIFA American Hero.

* The Fonz Lives And Franco Is Dead: News You Can't Use.

* Gone With The Wind: My Lost Cause.


David Rutter is the former publisher/editor of the Lake County News-Sun, and more importantly, the former author of the Beachwood's late, great "The Week In WTF" column. You can also check him out at his Theeditor50's blog. He welcomes your comments.

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