Twenty First Century Industrial Self-Help in Major League Baseball

Using their voices and social media presence, Major League Baseball players can achieve change in the workplace for industries involved in baseball.

Over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the American economy has changed significantly, largely in response to technological advances applicable to industry. These changes in conjunction with societal values can be tracked by examining the only professional sport in existence during that time period, professional baseball. Commonly referred to as “America’s pastime,” baseball has garnered special treatment from authorities since Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a federal judge, was appointed the Major League Baseball’s first Commissioner in 1920. 

However, one area of law and regulation that has not treated America’s pastime as an exception to the rule of law is labor and employment law. All private employers, Major League Baseball included, are governed under the National Labor Relations Act. The Act itself has evolved over time and its roots are as old as professional baseball itself. In its current form, the NLRA is a combination of complex statues that govern the relationship between management (an employer) and its workforce (the labor). 

Notably, the NLRA lists specific unfair labor practices that can result in punishment, likely in the form of injunctive relief, for engaging in conduct that disturbs a third party to a dispute. These are referred to as “secondary boycotts.” In other words, actions taken against party that does notemploy the bargaining unit in question, with the intent of harming the actual employer of the bargaining unit, by unit members in an effort to engage in industrial self-help are unlawful. Other illegal secondary boycotts occur when bargaining unit members select a distributor or business and prevents the entity from using the product made by the employer of the unit. 

Restrictions on secondary boycotts by union members are a powerful tool to keep a level playing field between labor and management. Irrespective of the merits of this doctrine, it looms large over professional sports. Recently, New Era, the hat manufacturer and sponsor for Major League Baseball, announced plans to close a union factory which would eliminate 200 union jobs in Derby, New York. The manufacturing would be moved south to a non-union facility. This move is an economic reality, as the industry continues pivoting towards states with better tax incentives and cheaper labor to survive the intense competition of a global market.

Nevertheless, the sentiment within society has shifted from apathy toward union jobs during the post-industrial stage towards one of concern lately. This is shown by Washington Nationals Sean Doolittle’s reaction to New Era’s decision to close the factory in Derby. Doolittle notes the potential impact moving can have on the bargaining units’ income and benefits. He wants to stand in solidarity with them, obliquely calling for action to be taken to help save the union jobs. 

Major league baseball has saved union jobs before. In 2017, it helped broker a deal between textile workers in a uniform factory and their employer, Majestic. Doolittle would like to see the same effort taken to help the bargaining unit in New Era’s factory. This course of action places the league in a precarious position because if it exerts too much pressure on New Era it can open itself up to liability under the NLRA. The same liability exists for players, who are represented by a union, if their solidarity crosses the line into secondary boycott territory. Also, a player who refuses to wear a New Era hat or alters his uniform can be subject to punishment from his club and MLB.

This is not to say nothing can be done to advocate on behalf of union jobs. Major league players, unlike teamsters and construction workers, have a platform. One tweet can lead to significant news coverage, as is the case here. By using their platform on social media and press engagements they can achieve change and help union jobs. It also prevents players from tarnishing their image as being viewed as a trouble maker or disruptive. By virtue of being a professional athlete, players like Doolittle have a voice heard throughout the nation. It can get people from all ages and demographics interested in workers’ rights and help strengthen union jobs. At a macro level, employers such as New Era can track the reaction and adjust their business plan to fit what their consumers want efficiently without widespread labor unrest. Players using their platform to help advance workers’ rights is effective and the optimal level of support in contemporary labor relations. 

By Tony DiPerna

Photo credit: Major League Baseball

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