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America's Mightiest Union

How does organized labor call the shots when it comes to America’s favorite pastime?

August 10, 2002

How does organized labor call the shots when it comes to America's favorite pastime?

Trade unions in the United States are in a steady decline. The statistics certainly prove it. In the 1950s, for example, union workers accounted for around 40% of the private sector workforce. But by 1999, less than 10% of private workers were unionized.

Unions no longer win very big wage increases for their members, and few industries are "closed shops"—meaning that only union members can work there. It seems that the public sector is the last refuge for organized labor in the United States.

But there is one industry where a union not only rules, but rules big. All employees in the industry are union members — no exceptions, ifs or buts. And this union totally delivers.

All members get a couple of months off per year, great fringe benefits and full pensions. And they get paid well, too. Between 1989 and 2002, wages in the industry have increased nearly five times. In fact, the average union member now grosses a cool $2.4 million per year!

What kind of a fabulous union is that? No, it is not the UAW, the once-proud auto workers' union that has since had to take on other workers to survive, becoming in the process the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implements Workers of America. Nor is it any of the often maligned airline employee unions.

Instead, it's the Major League Baseball Players Association, the trade union representing all the ball players on the roster of 30 major league clubs.

The baseball players' union has been much in the news lately — and has gotten some unflattering publicity.

It fought long and hard against having its members tested for use of performance enhancing drugs, despite persistent allegations that players use illegal steroids to build muscle and boost performance.

In the end, neither baseball players nor team owners want to tarnish the image of the American pastime with a drug scandal. After decades of opposition, the union finally agreed to limited drug tests in August 2002 — which are only to be continued if a first sample shows widespread use of performance enhancing substances.

But a drug scandal may be the least of the baseball industry's problems. The American public may be losing patience with the union's endless negotiations for ever higher salaries and better retirement benefits. As the players' salaries go up by 15-20% a year it's the fans who suffer — by paying ever-higher ticket prices.

And the baseball players’ threat to go on strike, just as the playoffs and the World Series loom around the corner, is giving unions a bad name.

This threat is ominously reminiscent of 1994, when a strike forced the cancellation of the World Series. Baseball's popularity suffered in the aftermath of the strike, and embittered fans stayed home in anger during the 1995 season, leading to a 20% drop in attendance that year.

Although ticket sales and attendance have since recovered, another strike would be a bad idea. Combined with the implications of a drug scandal, it is not surprising if the American public is fed up with its strongest union — and just wants the players to play ball.