Marvin Miller’s Legacy, and the Decline of Labor

[O]ne thing a trade union leader learns to do is how to count votes in advance. Whenever I took one look at what I was faced with, it was obvious to me it was not gonna happen…
[General Sherman] basically said, ‘I don’t want to be president. If I’m nominated I will not campaign for the presidency. If despite that I’m elected, I will not serve.’ Without comparing myself to General Sherman, that’s my feeling. If considered and elected, I will not appear for the induction if I’m alive. If they proceed to try to do this posthumously, my family is prepared to deal with that…
What [Groucho Marx] said was words to the effect of, ‘I don’t want to be part of any organization that would have me as a member.’ Between a great comedian and a great general, you have my sentiments.
   — Interview with Marvin Miller, 2008, after asking the Hall of Fame to stop nominating him


Since Marvin Miller’s death, there has been a small but respectful chorus of voices calling for Miller’s enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, in recognition of his titanic legacy in the game. Bud Selig himself made the unenthusiastic case: “The criteria for non-playing personnel is the impact they made on the sport. Therefore Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame on that basis.”

The case against Marvin Miller is this: as the architect of the MLBPA, arguably the most powerful labor union in the country, Miller laid the groundwork for players to be paid hundreds of millions of dollars. The case for Marvin Miller is this: as one of the most successful labor leaders in the country, Miller obtained economic freedom for thousands of men whose salaries had previously shackled them with effective indentured servitude.

The problem with appreciating Marvin Miller’s legacy is that the United States has changed. Miller was born in 1917, the year that the United States entered World War I and the Soviet Union was formed. These twin events shaped the contours of the century to come. The mechanization required for two world wars helped build the grand American industrial postwar manufacturing economy, and ideological warfare with Communists helped to politically poison the rhetoric of organized labor.

Marvin Miller was not a baseball man. He was a labor economist, organizer, and leader, and he was one of the most successful labor leaders in American history. Journalist Studs Terkel was the author of Working, a classic 1974 collection of interviews with people about their jobs, and he writes in the foreword to Miller’s autobiography, “Marvin Miller, I suspect, is the most effective union organizer since John L. Lewis.” Just for perspective, Lewis helped found the AFL-CIO; Miller founded the baseball players’ union.

But any description of Miller’s achievements usually crystallizes around baseball’s rapidly expanding player salaries, which largely resulted from Miller’s victories to obtain free agency and defeat collusion.

How much have baseball salaries inflated? According to average salary data from 1964 to 2002 that I’ve taken from Michael Haupert’s “The Economic History of Major League Baseball,” real dollar average salaries appear to have increased about 7% a year from the 1964 to 1975 seasons. In the 1975 offseason, the reserve clause was struck down, ushering in the era of free agency. From 1976 to 1991, average salaries increased about 40% a year. From 1992 to 2002, they increased about 10% a year.

Miller’s success came out of the pockets of greedy owners who no doubt would prefer to still pay players the salaries that they paid in the 1970s. Salaries have increased much faster than the rate of inflation, as Jesse Wolfersberger has written, but that’s not entirely Miller’s fault. As Tim Marchman notes at Slate, Miller credited the owners’ shortsightedness, writing:

In the wake of the Messersmith decision it dawned on me, as a terrifying possibility, that the owners might suddenly wake up one day and realize that yearly free agency was the best possible thing for them; that is, if all players became free agents at the end of the year, the market would be flooded, and salaries would be held down. It wouldn’t so much be a matter of the teams bidding against one another for one player as of players competing against each other. … What would we do, I wondered, if just one of the owners was smart enough to figure out the money they would save if all players became free agents every year?

Through greed and ineptitude, they never figured it out, and we’ve been living in the world that Marvin wrought for four decades now. Marvin Miller’s first victory came in the 1972 strike, the first players’ strike in baseball history, when the players struck for fourteen days in April and won better pensions and the right to salary arbitration from a third-party arbitrator. As a result of that, as Fred Down of UPI wrote, Miller became “the strongest executive baseball has known since its first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.”

Miller got his workers their paydays, and they should forever be grateful. But it is harder for fans to appreciate what Miller did. After all, the players’ union struck in 1972, and it struck again in 1980, 1981, 1985, and 1994 — which was the first and last time that anyone other than Marvin Miller led the players out on strike. The players may have had a justified grievance, but it was ultimately the fans who suffered, and when the players got their payday, it was not the fans who benefited.

Miller’s New York Times obituary pointed to a quote from Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote: “Miller’s goal was to get his ballplayers to think like steelworkers—to persuade members of the professional class to learn from members of the working class.”

But America’s economy is different today than it was when Marvin Miller cut his teeth with the United Steelworkers union. The United States is no longer a manufacturing-based economy, it’s a service-based economy, and workers are paid less for what they make and more for what they do and even who they are. The baseball players’ union is undeniably strong, but few other unions are. Indeed, nearly all of the strongest unions in the country other than baseball players are now government workers, from clerical staff to teachers.

And then there is the sheer scale of the dollars. Many who struggle through a slow economy have trouble seeing how any other worker could be paid hundreds of millions of dollars — though I must tread lightly, because to suggest that it is difficult to understand can tread dangerously close to “class warfare” for some. That was the kernel at the heart of the “We are the 99%” meme.

Miller had enormous success in unionizing baseball players to take advantage of the economic surplus generated by their own scarce talent, but the American economy is far less unionized today than it was when he first took the job with the Players Association, as the smaller workplaces that have emerged in the years since the decline in manufacturing have not been as likely to be unionized as the massive factories were before them.

That isn’t Miller’s fault, but it circumscribes his legacy. John L. Lewis helped found the AFL-CIO, a dominant force in American labor for much of the 20th century. Lewis’s influence was felt in most of the largest industries in the country; in those industries, unions were the norm. Now, they are the exception, and Miller’s crowning achievement, the Players Association, is a relic of a former era little loved by fans or by owners.

In order to advocate best for its members, and per the conventions of collective bargaining, the Players Association doggedly hews to the strict letter of contracts — even when doing so infuriates ownership and many members of the public, as it did in the case of Ryan Braun’s PED test. The union is a finely tuned machine that functions to protect its players’ rights and increase their salaries, to the extent that baseball players have better salaries and better workplace protection than just about any other workers in the country.

It is unlikely that labor will return to its former state. As Nicco Mele, a professor of mine, writes in his upcoming book The End of Big, more people than ever before are going into business solo. The average size of workplaces is declining, which means that collective bargaining will continue to decline in use.

Marvin Miller spent his life advocating for workers’ rights, and he did so through the vehicle of unions. In the 21st century, workers will need different vehicles for advocacy. But in the meantime, baseball players will continue to doggedly make a lot more than the rest of us. They deserve it — they’re incredibly good and we’re willing to pay. Marvin Miller got them what they deserved. However, before baseball fans can fully to appreciate his achievement, others will need to pick up where he left off, throughout the rest of the economy. That will be a far better tribute than a Hall of Fame vote.




Print This Post



Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


28 Responses to “Marvin Miller’s Legacy, and the Decline of Labor”

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
  1. Nate S says:

    Very thoughtful and interesting perspective that covers the larger context of Marvin Miller’s life, not just the bullet points I’ve read everywhere else.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. A Union Goon says:

    Without a doubt, Miller was one of the most influential men for MLB. For all the great things that he achieved for the players, I don’t hear a lot of discussion about how it has affected the fans.

    Mr. Miller gets credit for being a terrific organizer, savior for the little guy, labor thug, blackmailer and extortionist. For me and my family, he’s the guy that made going to baseball games not affordable. We shell out a lot more money in ticket prices and concessions. $200 to $300 isn’t uncommon for a family outing to watch a 3 hour game. The dixie cup of beer costs $9 and the hot dog on a stale bun is a mere $8.

    Somebody’s got to pay for those 9 digit salary contracts.

    – Just a different perspective from somebody who remembers when baseball player were approachable and viewing was still affordable.

    -8 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Jason says:

      You think owners would charge less even though the consumer is willing to pay it, just out of their benevolence?

      One of the big misconceptions among casual fans is that the baseball players salaries has a casual relationship with the price of attendence. its just supply and demand. The salaries are a dependent variable on the profits generated by the revenues.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • A Union Goon says:

        Sure, I understand that it’s all supply and demand. People will pay for SRO admission at high prices, then there’s no need to reduce prices. Ticket prices & concession prices aren’t likely to go down, ever.

        My point is that lower middle income people find baseball less affordable than before the MLBPA became such a force. Some people are priced out of baseball as entertainment. Whether that’s part of Miller’s legacy is debatable but I do feel the union’s power is a major factor in what the fans pay.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • I understand that you feel that. I tend to believe that the owners would charge whatever they think they can get away with charging; that’s why prices always increase after a team wins the World Series.

        But when you say that Miller was a labor thug, blackmailer, and extortionist, exactly what thuggery, blackmail, and extortion are you referring to?

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • A Union Goon says:

        Miller wasn’t really a blackmailer, union thug or extortionist but that’s the way he was portrayed by many owners and execs. Much in the same way that the players (understandably) revere him for turning them into multi-millionaires. One thing’s for sure — He was polarizing figure.

        Miller organized and led the player strikes of 72, 80 and 81 as well as a couple of lockouts. His actions set the precedent to have no baseball in parts of 94 and 95 even though he did not lead those strikes. I’d guess it’s only a matter of time before the union decides they want more power and strike again. Whether that constitutes thuggery or extortion depends on which side of the fence you are on.

        As an avid fan, I was pretty unhappy about all the MLBPA strikes though I’m no supporter of the owners either.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Antonio bananas says:

        The union has no bearing on what they charge. The only way your assumption is true is if every game was sold out before and they are drawing less now. This is not true though. Owners will maximize profit regardless. The revenue will always be there. The prices will always be as high as they can make them. The ony difference is that now the money is going to the players that actually draw the fans and not the lucky sperm owners.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • I’m not sure it’s fair to blame labor for a lockout. Do you blame the NHL players for the current lockout, or for the one that happened a few years ago? Do you blame the NFL referees for having gotten locked out at the beginning of this season?

        Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Basically every stadium has cheaper options to attend games. If you do not want to spend $300, simply don’t. Sit in cheaper seats, eat before you get to the game, park further away for cheap (or even free!), and get out of there for under $100, even for a family of four.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. baseball man says:

    The article seems to presume that Miller’s hall candidacy has suffered becuase fans and owners don’t appreciate his contributions, and because of the declining influence of organized labor generally.

    But its the BBWA that’s the gatekeeper on the hall right? And he’s been eligible for induction for years, dating back to when labor was a much greater force in the economy. So the connection to the owner and the fan is pretty weak. Why do the writer’s hold him in so low esteem?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • The answer here is a bit odd. Basically, the writers vote on the players. Executives like Miller go in via Veterans Committee, and the Veterans Committee has changed a lot over the years. The people who have voted on Miller’s candidacy are, for the most part, former players, former owners, and former executives.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. Hank G. says:

    Was Miller right about the negative effects if all players were free agents every year? Teams would still be competing for the elite players. At the very least, there would be a better correlation between players’ peaks and peak earnings.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Jason says:

      I think his assumption was erroneous. The talent is to scarce. Eventually some team would decide to go Miami Heat on MLB and bid up the prices on elite players accordingly.

      My hypothesis is that you would see much higher AAV but obviously less job security for players. In this way the current system shifts the risk to the teams.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Ed says:

      We’ve seen hints of it on occasion. The ’08-’09 offseason stands out in particular. There were a lot of non-tenders then, and a large number of good but not great free agent outfielders (think Abreu, Burrell, Milton Bradly, etc). Most free agents got lower salaries than people expected.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Baltar says:

      I think unlimited free agency would drive up the prices of elite players and reduce the prices of everyone else. I have no way to prove this, but Ed’s example lends some support for it.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. keith waters says:

    The Soviet Union came into existence in 1922 after the end of the civil war. You must be thinking of the end of the Romanov dynasty.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • The terminology is a bit tough no matter how you say it. Originally I was going to refer to the October Revolution, but of course that occurred in November. The Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, and in official Soviet history, that was the birth year of the union. How Western historians choose to dispose of the period from 1917 to 1922 is really outside the scope of this article.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Baltar says:

        Alex is correct. The Soviet Union did come into existence in 1917 (though I don’t recall what the exact name was at first). The issues of duration, scope, methods of governing, et. al. were largely shaped in the following five years.
        All of the rest of Eastern Europe and Western Asia were also in turmoil–international wars, civil wars, revolutions–during the same period, certainly one of the most interesting periods in the history of the world.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. Doc Irysch says:

    In these tough times I am very grateful to be a part of a union.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. antonio bananas says:

    Marvin Miller is one of my favorite non-player people in baseball history. I like that salaries are higher, that means the money (that is going in regardless) is actually going to the people that make me watch and not the silver spooners and corporations that just reap the benefits of having money.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. olethros says:

    Labor hasn’t declined so much as it’s been throttled with malice aforethought.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. awy says:

    dem baseball revenues sure inflated in a hurry too. inflation inflation inflation, very loaded word usage here.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. James Rygelski says:

    As someone who grew up with parents who were both union members, and as someone who was covered by union contracts in two different jobs then went into management and supervised a union shop, I appreciate what Marvin Miller did for the ballplayers. He got to them to demand basic rights that management wasn’t going to give without being met by collective muscle. As my parents told me when I was a boy, unions do more than set wages; they ensure that workplaces are safe and that workers are treated with respect — even if managment does so grudingly. Don’t blame high salaries on the players; such escalating numbers generally display the incompetent negotiating skills of general managers and owners. However, there is one big difference in the baseball players’ union and those covering everyday workers. A true union contract sets wages for different types of jobs based on seniority. Applied to baseball, that would mean that first-year first-basemen would earn this much, and second-year shortstops would earn that much, etc., for the life of the contract. True union contracts don’t allow merit pay. “Unionized” baseball players have a guaranteed minimum wage and the right to an agent to negotiate individual salaries that include merit incentives. Also, true unionized employees honor the picket lines of authorized (not wild-cat) strikes. I recall the ballplayers crossing the umpires’ picket lines many years ago.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Good points. I think that the question of seniority versus merit pay is a historical legacy that more and more unions will find that they have to abandon — the teachers’ unions are going through that painful struggle right now.

      You’re absolutely right about the professional ethics of the players crossing the umpires’ picket line. Of course, the umpire’s strike was misbegotten in a number of ways. The umps should have realized how little power they had, compared to the players; MLB basically used the strike as a way of firing the umps, like Eric Gregg, whom they wished they could have fired all along. The umpires should never have struck without having coordinated with the players; they had very little leverage without the players’ union.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Antonio bananas says:

      Blame high salaries on the fans. We pump billions into these orgs, the players know they’re the main reason and demand it.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Eugene Freedman says:

      It depends what you consider merit pay or pay for performance. In aviation pilots of more advanced aircraft get paid more. For example, AA pays 74 and triple7 pilots more than 75 or 73 or MD80s down the line. The business model of flying and maintaing so much different equipment is another story. Those are union negotiated contracts. The same goes for Air Traffic Controllers who are paid more for working at more complex, busy facilities. It’s not based upon seniority. It’s based upon workload and complexity. The higher level facilities have both senior and junior controllers. So do the lower level and those in the middle. That’s a union negotiated pay system.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  11. Peter Dreier says:

    While he was alive, the baseball establishment five times blacklisted Marvin Miller from the Hall of Fame, while the Major League Baseball Players Association sat on its hands. Miller’s death should now spur the union to mobilize a crusade to get this brilliant sports pioneer the honor he clearly deserves, as Kelly Candaele and I suggest in this article for The American Prospect magazine: http://prospect.org/article/marvin-millers-lasting-legacy.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. Eugene Freedman says:

    Lewis founded the CIO – the industrial union organization which eventually merged with the AFL, which Lewis definitely did not found. Nor was he instrumental in the merger, because he left the CIO and rejoined the AFL and subsequently left again prior to the merger.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>