Talking baseball … and labor

Dec 5 – 11, 2002

By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
Le Moyne College hosts baseball executive for start of Madden Institute Lecture Series

The 2002-03 Madden Institute Lecture Series at Le Moyne College began with a home run. Robert D. Manfred Jr., executive vice president of labor relations and human resources for Major League Baseball, spoke to students, faculty and the general public at the school’s Panasci Family Chapel on Nov. 21 about “Collective Bargaining and the Culture of America.” Manfred was instrumental in working with the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) during the 2002 season and preventing a work stoppage.

The Madden Institute for Business Education, endowed by Michael Madden, president of Le Moyne’s Board of Trustees, was founded in 1998 to provide in-depth study into the transforming world of business. Madden, a 1971 graduate of Le Moyne College, was thrilled to have Manfred talk and share his experience.

“In the dual tradition of baseball and business education, we welcome Rob to Le Moyne,” Madden said. “The wet weather outside will not rain out our baseball discussion.”

Manfred attended Le Moyne College for two years before transferring to Cornell University, where he received his bachelor’s degree. He received his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1983. He was a partner of Morgan, Lewis, Bockius LLP in Washington, D.C., working on labor and employment law cases before joining Major League Baseball. Manfred’s major responsibilities include maintaining a strong working relationship between the players association and the team owners and overseeing human resources in the Commissioner’s Office.

“In my view, there is a whole generation of Americans that has come to maturity in the last 20 to 25 years that have no appreciation for the process of collective bargaining and, even more important, something of a misunderstanding about the role of work in our society,” Manfred said.

Mixing baseball trivia and business concepts, Manfred took participants through his college years and career to date.

“First and most important, I had great educational opportunities. I was fortunate enough to begin my educational experience here at Le Moyne and the skills that I developed in this liberal arts program provided the foundation for everything I have done since I left Le Moyne. A small liberal arts program provides a unique opportunity to develop the writing and analytical skills that have proved invaluable in my career,” he said.

After graduating from law school, Manfred said he entered the work force at the time of “great economic opportunity” in the early 1980’s. “Law firms were booming and couldn’t hire lawyers fast enough. More importantly, because of merger mania, the investment banks and consultants had emerged as top dollar competitors for the best legal minds,” he noted. Manfred said many of his classmates wanted to make fast money and “do deals” through financial transactions, not through goods or services. This mindset, he said, forced him to work for unions, rather than big financial giants.

“It was in this environment that I made and stuck to my decision to practice labor law and to become involved in the process of collective bargaining. And, believe me, my peers thought this was an odd choice. Of my 500 classmates, I know of only one other who had the desire to practice labor law,” Manfred said. “To most of my peers, the idea of working with unions representing factory workers and truck drivers did not seem that interesting.”

Collective bargaining, Manfred said, combines two themes: self-determination and the value of work in defining oneself. Unions have given workers the ability to influence their future through collective bargaining.

“Sanitation workers can place a great burden on the richest people in New York with a sanitation strike. Twelve hundred baseball players can literally create a national crisis by refusing to work,” said Manfred. “But the economic leverage available to unionized workers is not power for the sake of power. Instead, it is the engine that drives the process of negotiation and allows workers to reap what they perceive to be a more equitable share of the economic value produced by their labor.”

Work defines individuals in their lives, Manfred said.

“Work — along with faith and family — is one of the objective realities by which people define themselves. Work is the process by which people can and should produce something of inherent value to our society,” Manfred said. “In the process of collective bargaining, people have the opportunity to influence not only what they are paid, but also what they actually do in the workplace. Issues like hours of work, job content and promotional opportunities are resolved. … The process truly affects people’s lives.”

When the American media criticize baseball players for caring too much about “affluence and materialism,” Manfred said they are missing the point.

“Those aspects of our culture are, however, by-products of far more important and appealing American characteristics, including the desire for and the ability to exercise self-determination and devotion to that productive activity known as hard work,” he said. “Our system of collective bargaining has flourished for more than 70 years and should be respected because it allows union members to exercise the right of self-determination to influence how they work and how they will be rewarded by their work.”

Manfred’s comments shifted to baseball specifically for the rest of the presentation. He talked about the last few rounds of collective bargaining between the players and owners. He shared stories of friends being fired, long nights of painful negotiation and unresolved differences. “In 1994 to 1996, I had quite a ride. I survived a 232-day baseball strike, the firing of the senior partner in my law firm who had introduced me to baseball, four changes in the chief negotiator and two trips to the Clinton White House,” he said. “I am the only management person in the history of baseball labor relations who has survived three rounds of collective bargaining.”

When hired by Major League Baseball in 1998, Manfred said he had one goal in mind: change the relationship between the players association and the owners. Through his diligence and the leadership of Commissioner Bud Selig, Manfred said baseball was able to avoid a strike. But unlike what was portrayed by the media, the state of baseball was much better.

“Over the last 12 months, much has been written about the game’s problems and what needs to be done to ‘save’ the game. Baseball doesn’t and didn’t need to be ‘saved’ like an endangered species. It is a vibrant, thriving and integral part of American culture,” Manfred said. “So while the last round of bargaining forced the parties to deal with very serious competitive and economic issues, it is important not to lose sight of the game’s continuing, fundamental popularity.”

The 2002 agreement between baseball players and owners was a “watershed in terms of baseball labor relations.” Manfred said although a strike was still a possibility until the final decision was reached, both sides jettisoned historical ways of thinking and acting during collective bargaining sessions and worked for a strong agreement.

“I would like to say that after 30 plus years, the relationship between the MLBPA and baseball finally began to mature. That maturation was most evident in the format of the talks. Historically, baseball negotiations have resembled the form of theatre. Often, discussions took place between huge committees, sometimes with more than 20 people on each side. The parties did not bargain; they exchanged pre-package speeches,” he said. “This time, we managed fairly early in the process to supplement our formal negotiations with meetings among two or three representatives from each side. These small meetings allowed the key negotiators to develop a closer relationship, which ultimately led to the deal.”

Manfred is excited about the future of baseball because of the 2002 deal. “While it may not be perfect, it is hard to argue that we didn’t make a step forward in our relationship with the MLBPA. We avoided the biggest downside — a work stoppage,” he said. “We made strides toward improving the competitive quality of our product on the field and, while we did not insure profitability, we gave the Commissioner important new tools to deal with the issue of franchise instability.”

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