What We Talk About When We Talk About Players Associations


In the current moment, relationships between capital and labor are fraught to say the least. Fraught describes, in this instance, not only the fact that relations between labor and capital are always antagonistic and characterized by the tooth and claw of class warfare, but also a kind of epistemological challenge to the very categories of labor that we’ve come to appreciate. What’s less widely acknowledged is that such a framework is being eroded by capital on a day-by-day basis, leaving us with a melange of relations difficult if not impossible to chart (or, non-incidentally, to oppose). This raises any number of questions, but the one I want to unpack here is this: what do these changing relations mean for Major League Baseball?

Okay, I understand — that’s a bit of a jump. But I promise it makes sense with the proper background. Let’s start with another question: can you determine who owns the “means of production” in your job right now? If you’re a factory worker, I guess this can still be a fairly cut and dried question, but for the rest of us, it’s a bit harder. In my job as an adjunct, I suppose I have the power in the classroom itself and the head of department owns the means of reproduction of my labor, vis-a-vis contracts. Even more abstractly, as a blogger, I’m effectively self-employed, controlling “the means” of my labor insofar as I can decide when and what to write, limited only by what Gary Becker, erstwhile University of Chicago neoliberal firebrand, might call my human capital. Indeed, as employers shift to decentralized home-office setups, as freelance becomes more and more commonplace, and as gig economy logics infect even the least gig-economized aspects of our society, the distinction between labor and capital erodes and tends toward total ambivalence.

None of this is good for unions. Not only do they now have to combat the ideological opponents they’ve been warring with since Reagan and Thatcher, they also now have to convince workers that there still is a power-structure they need protection from. It’s a hard enough sell when unions tell workers that they are not and likely will not be management, and are natural antagonists; it’s a much harder sell when unions tell workers that their own self-management and apparent autonomy has a limit, that they will never really own the means of production. Ideology, as they say, is a hell of a drug, especially when materiality seems to back it up.

All of which brings us, surprisingly enough, to baseball. Well, as I think more about it, I guess it brings us to Sports in General, particularly the odd relationship between owners and players.

Professional sports are one of the only places in contemporary American culture where we can easily diagnose the difference between the owners of the means of production and the people who produce the surplus value. Indeed, we as stat-savvy fans often fetishize surplus value over on-field performance, reifying the explicit added value above salary that a particularly underpaid or undervalued player provides. We fetishize GMs as much as we do players for this reason: they can get our team a deal, and we can feel the thrill of passive exploitation.

Meanwhile, the owners of the team literally furnish the means of producing a professional sports landscape by pumping money into franchises that are — at this point — effectively guaranteed to grow in value. Players are the widgets they buy that also double as employees and triple as long-term investments, effectively the gears that make the factory of professional sports run as planned. Very cut and dry, right?

Well, yes and no. Because athletes aren’t quite exactly powerless cogs themselves. They make tons of money or at least have the potential to make tons of money. They hold almost no power at the early stages of their career — and there’s another article here about why that’s the case and what their unions ought to do to change it — but by the time they hit their prime, they have often flipped the script completely. Free agents in Major League Baseball, for instance, can wield the cudgel of nine-figure contracts, as they effectively set the market for demand and opportunity cost in a business in which every team wants to compete every year. NBA players have routinely been the focus of intense conservative backlash, especially as their salary cap rises and teams race to keep up with the salary floor that rises alongside it. Players are therefore the ultimate version of Becker’s human capital — people who invested and bet on themselves and, as a result, control their own means of productive labor.

And this would be wonderful and a weird and early validation of neoliberal, Austrian School capitalism if it wasn’t for the pesky persistence of reality. Since the early nineties (and, yes, before that too), unions and management in sports have been locked in a periodic clash over the nuclear option of a lockout. Well, perhaps the penultimate nuclear option, since a lockout occurs when management and the union are still trying in good faith to hash a contract out; the true nuclear option is a strike, the true Big Stick of the labor union, in which work halts entirely until a reasonable contract is presented by management. Those baseball fans you know from 1994 will tell you how rough those can get.

Suffice it to say, players’ unions and managements tend to — as they ought to in an adversarial labor system — clash. Ostensibly, these clashes have to do with player demands for more of the pie that the owners have, the natural antagonisms of the union-management relationship. But as Charles Pierce pointed out during the 2012 near-lockout of the NBA, money is kind of a red herring in these negotiations. What’s actually at issue is not the profitability of the teams themselves — laughable reports of franchises losing money being obvious negotiating tactics, as Pierce rightfully notes — nor, really, is it the salaries of star players. What’s at issue is a creeping demand by the owners to exert more control over the totality of their enterprise. The illusion of players as traditional laborers or even as high-functioning free agents within a competitive marketplace is degraded every time the owners get a concession from the unions in these negotiation showdowns.


This is of course a crummy position for unions to be in. You’re already losing the battle of hearts and minds in the media because, in the battle between “millionaires and billionaires,” the public roots for the meteor. Meanwhile, owners, who we, the flabby masses, can vaguely identify with come on TV and opine sadly about how much they want the season to go forward for the fans. The players begin to look like villains, money-greedy and too-focused on the bottom line to put a few dollars aside and play for the city’s glory. Meanwhile in the boardroom, the union has to deal with a virtual monopoly, their leverage essentially shot because they can’t reasonably offer some alternative work situation for their clients. “What will they do,” the owners can ask, “go become mechanics? Play for the independent leagues?” A lockout hurts the owners not at all — they’ll be beloved the next year when things come back to thirsty fans — and is a massive loss for the players. And so, most unions cave, giving more and more to the owners every two or three years during new contract negotiations.

But in the case of the stronger unions — MLB, I’m looking in your direction — there’s a very unique opportunity. All of this messy reality of contemporary capitalism, from the degrading of labor identity to the internalization of the bootstraps myth of human capital, has a face in the professional athlete and their struggle. And, yes, a lockout unilaterally helps the owners, but a union that is willing to go on the ideological offensive (if not the material one with a strike) would be in a prime position to reveal some of the contradictions we’ve discussed here. The very quality of these negotiations hinges on the mass-appeal of the very wealthy becoming even wealthier. If unions like the MLBPA could come out and say this, as opposed to sticking to the traditional respectful antagonism that is clearly outdated, they could speak to a contemporary, alienated, and precarious capitalism that is at once hidden by and embodied by professional athletes.

Such a vision unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately) asks more questions than it answers. What are the historical underpinnings of the MLBPA that produce such a particularly fertile ground for new ways of perceiving and critiquing capital relations? Is there something in its history — Marvin Miller, Curt Flood we’re looking at you — that motivates a kind of class antagonism, or is it simply that MLB players have the last viable sports union standing? And beyond questions of provenance, what are the responsibilities of the MLBPA as a group? Does it keep its members protected enough, or (and here’s a real moment in which I show my cards) are its most vulnerable members — like 15-year-old international free agents — under-represented?

The historical uniqueness of the MLBPA and its responsibilities necessitates at least two more articles, but for now let me end with a question that I feel a bit more comfortable answering, however provisionally: would a players’ union have any reason to force a kind of capitalist crisis? Well, maybe not. But in a theoretical and even a practical sense, they may be in the most strategically viable position to do so. Asking the impossible or the improbable, indeed, is as important a part of anti-captialist praxis as any other, and if imagining otherwise begins with those professional athletes “overpaid” by the owners, then why complicate it with questions of propriety or possibility? As Richie Ashburn might say of anti-capitalism as well as baseball: the game is easy, Harry.

No one said there would be high brow humor.