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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.