News & Commentary

December 1, 2021

Jason Vazquez

Jason Vazquez is a student at Harvard Law School.

Tonight, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the five-year collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, which represents 1,200 professional baseball players, and the thirty MLB team owners will expire. The two sides have been negotiating for months, and though MLB officials and team owners met with players and their union representatives on Monday and Tuesday, such negotiations are, according to ESPN, “going nowhere fast,” and an increasingly-likely lockout is looming large over the nation’s second-largest professional sports league, which would be the first in the league in nearly three decades and the first in major American sports in eight years. A lockout, in a sense the opposite of a strike, is a tool utilized by owners during labor disputes in which workers are excluded from their place of work until they accept certain contractual terms, designed to secure greater leverage for management at the bargaining table. A lockout in the MLB would place the entire league on hold, freezing the free agency and trading process, barring players from accessing team facilities, and, were it to stretch into next year, cancelling spring training programs and even regular-season games, though it would be surprising if the lockout lasted that long. Though some sports writers have been invoking the term “impasse” in their coverage of the labor dispute, it’s important to note, as Brandon Magner pointed out on twitter, that the Board held in the 1968 case Darling & Co. that an employer may engage in an offensive lockout prior to an impasse in negotiations.

There have been eight previous work stoppages in Major League Baseball. The last one, a player strike which started in August, 1994, was the longest in the sport’s history, lasting for more than seven months and resulting in the cancellation of the nearly a thousand games and the remainder of the 1994-95 MLB season. The 1994-95 strike ended when then-judge Sonia Sotomayor of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of the MLBPA and issued a preliminary injunction against team owners under § 10(j) of the NLRA, which enjoins alleged unfair labor practice while the case is being litigated, granting a petition filed in the District Court by the National Labor Relations Board charging that the owners had violated § 8(a)(1) and (5) of the NLRA by unilaterally eliminating certain provisions of the CBA. Now-Justice Sotomayor’s ruling restored the previous CBA, sent the players back to work and famously, according to Barack Obama, “saved baseball.

This time around, though ESPN reporters explain that “not a whole lot” is on the bargaining table, the dispute centers around the MLB’s complex salary structure and difficult path to free agency. The players are demanding, according to ESPN, “bigger paydays earlier in their careers, more competitive integrity . . . fewer artificial restrains on players via the competitive-balance tax (CBT) and draft pick compensation” and “free agency after five years or 29.5 years of age, whichever comes first,” while the league is seeking “a static amount of spending on players, expanded playoffs, an international draft, and on-field changes.” More generally, some MLB players have expressed their view that the current CBA, negotiated before the 2017 season, further tilted the balance of power in owners’ favor, and MLB players are seeking a larger share of revenues and a more competitive league, while team owners are attempting to preserve the status quo. Though many professional athletes may be highly compensated, their labor and bodies are exploited for profits, as are those of all working people, for the team owners who are worth billions of dollars and reap massive returns from the toil of these athletes.

According to a report released by a coalition of the Teamsters, SEIU, CWA, and UFW, at least 20,000 Amazon workers tested positive for COVID-19 last year, though the e-commerce conglomerate reported only 27 of those infections to federal regulators, which the unions have dubbed a “hidden pandemic.” The union coalition sent a complaint to Douglas Parker, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, demanding that OSHA investigate Amazon’s ‘disturbing pattern of misleading or grossly incomplete information provided to authorities around COVID-19 cases in its warehouses,” accusing that “put[ting] workers’ lives at risk by depriving OSHA of information about COVID-19 cases in its facilities.” The report comes on the heels of the NLRB’s order to rerun April’s highly-publicized union election at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, which Jon explained yesterday, though the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, the group seeking to represent Amazon workers in Bessemer, was not included in the above coalition.

The union’s report is merely the latest in a long string of allegations, accusations, complaints, and even lawsuits charging that Amazon has not done enough to protect its vast workforce during the pandemic. Similarly, New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), who is running for Governor of New York in next year’s crowded democratic primary,  on Tuesday filed a motion seeking an emergency injunction to force Amazon to immediately implement stricter COVID-19 safety protocols. “Amazon and its leadership banked billions of dollars during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as the crisis rages on, the health and concerns of the workers continued to be ignored,” AG James declared in the press release. In the complaint, filed in the state trial court for the County of New York, AG James alleges that the company violated New York state Labor Law that requires employers to provide reasonable and adequate protection to the lives, health, and safety of their employers, by “repeatedly and persistently fail[ing] to comply with it obligation to institute reasonable and adequate measures to protect its workers from the spread of the virus in its New York City facilities” and requests that the court enjoin Amazon from engaging in these unlawful practices and requiring the company “to take all affirmative steps . . . to ensure that Amazon reasonably and adequately protects the lives, health, and safety of its employees” including appointing a monitor to oversee worker safety at their large warehouses and facilities.

Finally, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Guardian reports that staffers, lecturers, and administrators at fifty-eight universities across England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, represented by the University College Union, went on strike starting today, disrupting campus activities for more than a million students in the UK. The strike, which was authorized by the union’s members in September, is the latest in a bitter dispute between university administration and staffers over falling pay, unsafe workloads, and pension cuts. A poll conducted by the National Union of Students, a confederation of student unions in the UK, found that nearly 75 percent of college students backed the strike while less than 10 percent opposed it, and union reported this morning that “huge numbers” of staff and students have joined the picket lines, demanding fair pay, decent pensions, and improved working conditions.  

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