History of Labor Struggles in MLB: The First Collective Bargaining Agreement

photo: Bowie Kuhn

The Cardinal Nation’s series highlighting the history of labor struggles in MLB continues with the development of the first Collective Bargaining Agreement. The author is Marilyn Green, a retired attorney with background in employment law. (free)

As covered in Part 5 of this series, the now successful Major League Baseball Players Association had a full time Executive Director with the hiring of former United Steelworkers official Marvin Miller. One crucial players issue, the pension, had been resolved to their satisfaction. What lay ahead for Miller and the MLBPA was to grow the union in strength and influence for future fights. The most important cause before them was the biggest and toughest issue to tackle, one that had eluded prior organized action for 90 years:  the reserve clause.

Following Miller’s first year as Executive Director of the MLBPA, a year of transition, the time came for the real work to begin. Negotiations began on the first Basic Agreement with ownership.

The first issue to tackle was the minimum salary, a long-time bone of contention for the players. Miller and the MLBPA made a first demand for an increase in the minimum salary to $12,000. The minimum salary at the time was a meager $7,000, and in the beginning of 1967, owners were unwilling to budge on the salary. In fact, at the first meeting, no owners even showed up. The presidents of both leagues, their legal advisor Bowie Kuhn, and a few staff members were the only participants in the talks. To call them “talks” was generous, in that the MLB side came only to listen and not deal. Efforts to get the league to make a counteroffer, or even provide the data needed to start the negotiations, was met with stony silence.

Miller obtained what salary information he could get from the players to make a calculation of a baseline. He demanded a second session with the owners, and once again no owners presented themselves, and the individuals who did show up, basically the individuals from the first session, refused to bargain. Yankees owner Mike Burke, who recognized the union was not going away this time, attempted to convince his compatriots to change their stance, but his efforts were rebuffed.

Marvin Miller

After Miller threatened the owners with the idea of a multi-sport union along with the NFL, NHL, and NBA, the owners put together a labor relations panel consisting of general managers from four teams, and by June 1967, made an offer to bump the minimum salary to $8,500. The panel refused to discuss any other issues. The multi-sport union was quickly discovered to be an unworkable idea, but the threat finally drove some movement from MLB owners.

Miller abandoned his initial approach of starting with one issue and building up and presented the owners with an entire Basic Agreement with all player demands laid out. A veiled threat to file a charge with the NLRB for failure to negotiate in good faith was also part of the new strategy.

The owners responded by adding two more GMs to their panel and hiring an experienced labor negotiator. Slowly, some progress was made over the next several months. The panel increased the minimum salary offer to $10,000. An agreement was made for an increase in spring training meal allowances from $12 to $15. Expense money stipend was increased to $40 a week from $25 a week.

The more difficult issues remained at a stalemate, however. These issues included a maximum salary cut, the length of the season, a grievance procedure, and the penultimate issue, the reserve clause. The grievance process was the most important issue for Miller. The minimum salary offer of $10,000 was still on the table but had not as yet been accepted by the union.  Despite the small gains so far on meal allowances and expenses, the ill will between the two sides had not abated.

Miller did not have full backing on all these issues by the players, which compounded the obstacles he faced. The Executive Director had filed a charge with the NLRB over an unfair labor practice by Kansas City Athletics owner Charles Finley in fining and suspending one of his pitchers. Several players were unhappy about the pending charge, as they felt they should have been consulted. Mistrust of organized labor tactics among many players remained an issue, and the feeling was their disputes should be settled without NLRB intervention. Miller was eventually able to calm their fears and the charge was ultimately dropped after the matter was settled with Finley and his attorneys.

Union solidarity was achieved later that year when the owners took umbrage at the union scheduling a bargaining session to coincide with the league’s end of season meetings. The owners flatly refused to allow the union to join their meetings and the players were furious.

A press conference announcing an extension of Miller’s contract with a raise in salary took place to send the message that the Executive Director was there to stay. Player representatives threatened several courses of action to push the owners back to serious negotiations, not excluding the possibility of a strike should no agreement be reached by the spring.

The strife continued into December, with one team, the Phillies, retaliating against player representative Jim Bunning by trading him to the Pirates. Shortly after, however, the sides returned to the bargaining table, signaling perhaps that the owners were not ready to escalate the situation any further.

Negotiations continued through the end of 1967. Shortly after New Year’s the league’s labor negotiator indicated he was keen on moving forward to an agreement. Miller made a final push for an independent grievance process involving federal mediators, but that proposal was rejected by the owners.

William Eckert

On February 19, 1968, an agreement between both sides was announced. The first Collective Bargaining Agreement in professional sports history was ratified on February 28, 1968. The principals in the negotiation for the owners were MLB Commissioner William Eckert, Labor negotiator John Gaherin, AL President Joe Cronin, NL President Warren Giles, legal counsel Bowie Kuhn, Mets Executive Bing Devine, Cardinals Executive Dick Meyer, Red Sox Executive Tom Yawkey, and Orioles Executive Jerry Hoffberger. The principals for the union were ED Marvin Miller, General Counsel Dick Moss, and Player Representatives Tim McCarver, Joe Torre, Roberto Clemente, Jack Fisher, Steve Hamilton, Don Drysdale, Bill Freehan, Jim Bunning, and Jim Pagliaroni.

The term of the CBA was April 6, 1968, through April 5, 1970.  The provisions of the CBA are as follows:

  • Player minimum salary at $10,000 for 1968 and 1969.
  • The sides agreed to a study group on changes to the Reserve Clause.
  • Establishment of a grievance arbitration process with the Commissioner as final arbiter.
  • Maximum salary pay cut of 20%.
  • Thirty days severance pay for players.
  • Increase in spring training expense stipend to $40 from $25.
  • Spring training meal allowance increase to $15 from $12.
  • Sides agreed to a committee to study a return to a 154-game schedule.
  • First class travel and hotel accommodations mandated.

The existing pension deal, set to expire in March 1969, was incorporated.  Also included in the CBA was a provision requiring owners to give advance notice of playing rules changes by the preceding offseason and any changes that affected player salary and benefits would require consent of the union.

Miller was disappointed in the outcome of the negotiations on the grievance process but was determined to use it to the fullest extent possible. Every possible grievance was pursued relentlessly. Grievances pertaining to furnishing of first-class travel and hotel accommodations under by the CBA, as well as teams requiring players to play games in unsafe conditions, such as wet fields, were filed with the Commissioner’s Office.

Bowie Kuhn

By the end of 1968, the owners decided to dispense with Commissioner Eckert’s services. He was replaced by their legal counsel, Bowie Kuhn. The reign of Kuhn, who did not like or respect Miller (the feeling was mutual) was to be a war of wills between the two men.

Though the existing pension deal had been incorporated into the CBA, it was set to expire in March 1969. Miller and the union membership expected a fight and had been discussing their options since the All-Star break. Discussions of a signing boycott and/or a spring training strike were ongoing. Formal negotiations over the pension began in October. The union proposed an increase in the pension contribution to $5.9 million and a reduction in pension eligibility from five years to four. The owners labor committee offered a $1 million increase to $5.1 million and rejected the rest of the union’s proposal.

In December 1968, each side held winter meetings in San Francisco and the owners refused to invite the union to engage in talks. The union held a vote, and membership overwhelmingly rejected the management offer. The membership also voted in favor of a spring boycott.

Negotiations began anew in January 1969 but were unproductive. By mid-February when pitchers and catchers were set to report for spring training, some of the players began to waffle. A small percentage of the membership changed their mind about the boycott and announced they would report after all. Miller and the Executive Board scrambled to shore up the remaining players’ resolve. The situation appeared to be unraveling for the union, but suddenly the winds changed in their favor. Kuhn, the new commissioner, not wanting his reign to begin with a labor mess and a delayed season, pressured the owners to make a deal.

Just in time for spring training to begin as scheduled, the two sides reached an accord. The owners agreed to increase the pension contribution to $5.45 million and accepted the union’s proposal to decrease the eligibility requirement to four years.

With the first CBA in effect and a new pension deal on the books, Miller and the MLBPA began the 1969 season with much to look back upon with satisfaction. Much more was left to do, however, with perhaps the biggest battle of all still to wage. The Reserve Clause, the 800-pound gorilla in the room, remained alive and well.

To be continued…

Prior articles in this series

History of Labor Struggles in Major League Baseball: The Early Years

History of Labor Struggles in MLB: The Rise of the AL and Road to Antitrust Exemption

History of Labor Struggles in MLB: The Supreme Court and Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption

History of Labor Struggles in MLB: Post World War II

History of Labor Struggles in MLB: The MLBPA and Marvin Miller

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