Pay Attention to Marvin Miller’s Lesson, Not Necessarily his Legacy

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Labor leader and union organizer Marvin Miller, the man who revolutionized the business of baseball in America, died this week at age 95. As executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1982, Miller’s signature achievement was overturning the game’s 100-year-old “reserve clause” – the contract provision that chained a player permanently to the team that originally signed him.

By ushering in the age of free agency in which baseball players could finally sell their talents to the highest bidder, he transformed the economic landscape of the national pastime. In the process, he helped make his player-constituents, as well as the generations of athletes who followed them, wealthy — many of them exuberantly so.

Over the course of his leadership — and largely because of the union’s solidarity during a few bitter strikes and lockouts over the years — Miller succeeded in increasing player salaries enormously. He also created an arbitration system for salary negotiations, beefed up the league’s pension plan substantially and infused his players with the professional dignity and economic influence that other American workers had achieved for themselves over the preceding decades through the power of collective bargaining and aggressive union actions.

A hero to some, yes, but there is a strange dissonance between Miller’s legacy and the lessons we should be learning from his life’s work, especially during these times of dwindling union membership and organized labor’s reduced clout, vs. a resurgence of capital accretion and management’s growing power and privilege.

Marvin Miller’s Legacy vs. His Lesson

Miller’s legacy, arguably, is that he succeeded so brilliantly – average player salaries were $19,000 per year in 1966 and today they are more than $3 million – that we no longer see baseball players as just another group of oppressed working stiffs who needed to do battle against entrenched and unjustly wielded economic power. Let’s face it: these guys make pretty good money for knocking a ball around, certainly much, much more than the vast majority of us who watch them do it.

What we should be considering, though, is the overall lesson Miller taught. That is, whenever and wherever workers organize and collectively bargain for their own benefit and win the fight, management also tends to reach new heights of economic prosperity. No one can argue, for example, that MLB owners have not shared in the wealth generated by the modern sports industry that Miller’s efforts helped to create, regardless of the astronomical pay packages of some of the game’s biggest stars.

And that paradigm is true in any industry — not just baseball — whether it’s the high-tech field where the Microsoft workers of the world remain non-unionized, or where low-tech Walmart employees struggle for fair wages and decent benefits. A well-paid, unionized work force need not be an impediment to management’s long-term profit potential.

Henry Ford understood this dynamic a century ago: management needs labor to have enough money to spend so that goods and services don’t languish and die for a lack of buyers. His own workers needed to be paid enough to be able to afford the very cars they manufactured, so he raised their wages, sold more cars and made more money.

But just as important is the notion that society as a whole benefits when labor wins its contests with capital, because no civilization in history has staved off decline for long when the gap between the haves and the have-nots reached a critical mass.

And while $3 million might be overstating the case, when Walmart workers need food stamps to feed their families and fast-food workers makes wages that keep them below the Federal Poverty Level, we’re getting perilously close to a dangerous tipping point.

Needed: Another Marvin Miller

Miller was a trained economist. Before baseball, he cut his teeth in trade union struggles between working class steel workers and their factory bosses. He was a veteran of hundreds of union negotiations, and professional baseball was simply another arena where the classic, adversarial battle between labor and management needed to be played out.

When he arrived at the helm of the Players Association, he found a baseball industry completely under the control of the team owners – some of the wealthiest men in the country – who treated players like indentured servants. He also found a loosely knit membership of ballplayers who were neither educated in the principles of collective bargaining and union tactics, nor knowledgeable concerning their own worth as irreplaceable, skilled talent.

So, while figuring out how to take on the owners, he also had to tutor his new employers in economic theory and labor relations strategy, and most importantly, convince them that they needed to coalesce around a set of demands that they would be willing to go to the mat for.

Today, in modern America, whether it’s in the hi-tech digital domain, the long aisles of the big box stores, or the kitchens of our fast food outlets, the income gap between workers and owners continues to widen and the working class is losing more and more of its share of the nation’s wealth.

So perhaps what we need today is another Marvin Miller — someone whose acumen, negotiating skill, strong will and unassailable moral compass can galvanize the needs and yearnings of the current generation of oppressed working stiffs being poorly used by the economy’s new “team” owners.

Who’s going to lead the way in leveling the country’s economic playing field, just like Marvin Miller did for America’s Field of Dreams?



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