Strike (labor)

From BR Bullpen

A strike is a work stoppage caused by the players refusing to play. When the owners refuse to hold games, the work stoppage is more properly called a lockout, although in common parlance, it is also referred to as a strike.

A strike can also be caused by umpires, or by other personnel associated with staging a baseball game, such as ballpark vendors.

History of player strikes[edit]


The first player strike in major league history lasted from April 1-13. 86 games were lost as a result and were never replayed, resulting in teams playing schedules with a different number of games. The players gained an increase in pension fund payments and the introduction of salary arbitration.


The owners decreed a lock-out during spring training, lasting from February 14-25.


The owners decreed another spring training lock-out, this one from March 1-17, after an arbitrator struck down the reserve clause. After negotiations resumed, the two sides agreed to the introduction of free agency for the first time.


The players went on strike for a week at the end of spring training, indicating they were serious about their demands related to ongoing negotiations of a Collective Bargaining Agreement. No regular season games were canceled, and underlying issues were not resolved, setting the stage for a more serious conflict the following year.


The 1981 strike was largely fought over the issue of free agent compensation, as owners argued that the recent advent of free agency was upsetting baseball's salary structure and causing excessive prejudice to teams losing front-line players. The players were unwilling to accept a system that would make free agency meaningless (as had happened in the NFL and NHL), leading to a showdown. The strike started on June 12th and play did not resume until the 1981 All-Star Game was staged on August 9th, a month after it was originally scheduled. As approximately one third of the season was lost to the strike, baseball adopted a special split-season schedule that added an extra round of playoffs pitting the first and second half winners in each of the four divisions.

The main result of the strike was the introduction of the short-lived free agent compensation draft.


There was a brief two-day work stoppage on August 6-7, 1985, as negotiations on renewing the agreement struck at the end of the 1981 strike broke down. The games lost to the strike were made up later in the season. However, the fundamental issues were not resolved, leading to the owners secretly adopting a policy of not bidding on free agents over the next three years in an attempt to prevent the growth of salaries. They would be found guilty of collusion by an independent arbitrator as a result.


The owners decreed a lock-out during spring training in 1990, lasting 32 days. Opening Day was pushed back by a week as a result, but the schedule was extended to ensure that no games were cancelled. Teams were also allowed to carry a few extra players on their rosters at the start of the season to compensate for the missed training time. Free agency and salary arbitration were again the main issues in contention, and the climate was tense given the owners had been found guilty of collusion in trying to undermine the free agency system between 1985 and 1988. The strike also led to the ouster of Commissioner Fay Vincent, whose handling of the conflict displeased the owners.


The 1994 strike was the most devastating one, as it brutally interrupted the season on August 11th and was not resolved until the end of March, 1995. In the meantime, the postseason and the World Series were cancelled for the first time in 90 years, and teams went to spring training planning to use replacement players during the 1995 season. In the end, the conflict was resolved just before that eventuality came to pass, and the start of the 1995 season was pushed back by three weeks. The games lost were not made up, and teams were allowed to carry a couple of extra players on their roster at the start of the season, as had been the case in 1990. However, the fundamental issues related to escalating salaries and the competitiveness of small-market teams were not resolved at the time.


There was no actual strike in 2002, although things went close to the brink as a deal for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was only struck on August 30th, hours before the first games were set to be cancelled. There was significant bitterness and posturing leading up to the deal, with demands from owners for a salary cap and revenue sharing being resisted by the players. In particular, the owners had attempted to contract two teams after the 2001 season, only to be stopped by a court ruling, and were still talking about making it happen until the deal was reached.

As difficult as it was to obtain a deal in 2002, it opened a new era of cooperative bargaining which resulted in players and owners working together in subsequent negotiations over the following two decades to come up with solutions aimed at the good of the game. There were no significant threats of strikes after that until 2018 or so, when players started grumbling about the free agency system no longer working, because it was taking many months for veteran free agents to find new teams, with many having to wait until spring training was well under way, and the contracts being offered even then were notoriously low and short-term, at a time when baseball's revenues were at an all-time high. The grumblings became louder in 2019 when the situation repeated itself.


After two decades of relative labor peace, the negotiations for the renewal of the CBA following the 2021 season were contentious, as had been predicted in the previous two or three years when players began to complain about inadequacies in the free agency system. This resulted in the owners decreeing a lockout on December 1, 2021 at 11:59 pm, when a self-imposed deadline for concluding a new agreement came to pass without a result. As there were no games scheduled in the immediate, the main practical effect of the lockout was to halt all player transactions for the time being.

The lockout itself was preceded by a frenzy of free agent signings, totalling a value of $1.4 billion on the day of the lockout, a clear indication that a lack of revenue was not the issue. Indeed Major League Baseball's revenues had reached records in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic had created a set-back in 2020 by wiping out two-thirds of the season and keeping fans from being present in ballparks. However, a gradual return to normalcy had taken place in 2021 and it was unlikely that there would be lasting damage. The issues at stake were that players were upset that the share of revenues going to salaries was continually shrinking, and that some controversial business practices, such as tanking an entire season, manipulation of service time, and the now well-established revenue sharing and luxury tax were all conspiring to lower salaries, by artificially depressing the earnings of young players not yet eligible for salary arbitration, and making it attractive for tight-fisted owners to field a lower-quality team by eschewing pricier veterans in favor of those making the minimum salary. For their part, the owners were satisfied with the status quo and were not prepared to give up anything, hence the lockout.

While the Commissioner immediately claimed that the lockout was the best way to preserve the 2022 season, it had the opposite effect, as it led to the postponement of Opening Day when the two sides were unable to come to an agreement before the deadline of March 1st. The owners had shown no particular precipitation in getting talks moving, not making any proposals for a full month after decreeing the lockout, and the deadline was missed in spite of a frantic nine days of intense negotiations that preceded it. The biggest sticking point was the issue of the luxury tax, as players claimed it acted as a de facto salary cap and needed to be raised significantly, something on which the owners refused to budge.

An agreement was finally reached on March 10th, after 99 days of conflict (and only intermittent negotiations during the ensuing period). While the Commissioner had announced twice that games would need to be cancelled because of the delay in reaching an agreement, when the dust settled, the two sides agreed to push back opening day by a week - until April 7th - but to still play a full 162-game season.

History of umpire strikes[edit]


The umpires went on strike for the first game of the League Championship Series to obtain recognition of the Major League Umpires Association.


The umpires staged a one-day strike on August 25th to force recognition of the Umpires Association as their official bargaining unit.


The umpires walked out during spring training, and not only was the conflict not settled by opening day, but they did not return for seven weeks. The two leagues compensated by promoting several minor league umpires and filling out the ranks with amateur umpires. As the strike lasted, fans began to realize that the replacements were nowhere as good as the regulars, eventually forcing Major League Baseball to grant significant concessions such as paid vacations and salary raises to its umpires. Eight of the umpires promoted from the minor leagues were kept on staff, but they were ostracized by the other umpires, creating tensions that lasted for years.


The umpires struck at the start of the League Championship Series and the conflict was only resolved in time for umpires to return for Game 5 of the 1984 NLCS (the 1984 ALCS had ended in three games, before the conflict was resolved). Replacement umpires were used while the strike lasted. The issue was compensation for umpires working postseason games


The umpires struck during spring training. The conflict was resolved just before opening day, but the striking umpires were unable to take up their working assignments immediately, resulting in replacement umpires being used in a number of opening day games.


Just as the devastating 1994 players strike was resolved in the spring of 1995, the umpires in turn went on strike. They missed around two weeks of games before returning to work on May 8th. There was little sympathy for the umpires this time around (as opposed to the 1979 walk-out) as fans were still disgusted over the players strike and just wanted the healing to begin. Many umpires were also displeased with the decision to strike at such an unpopular time, which would eventually lead to the demise of the umpires' union and its leader, Richie Phillips. Once again, replacement umpires were used while the regular umpires were away, although this time Major League Baseball did not pressure minor league umpires to break solidarity with their major league colleagues.


Because the 1995 umpires strike had shown that Major League Baseball was pretty well organized to handle a strike, Richie Phillips devised a different strategy, asking the umpires to send in their resignation letters en masse at the end of August. The idea was to force MLB to negotiate with a figurative gun to its head or risk chaos. However, the umpires were no longer unified, as those contesting Phillips' leadership refused to go along, and MLB exploited the schism by accepting only certain of the resignations, and promoting minor league umpires to fill the gaps. Soon, a rebel faction of umpires had formed a rival union - the World Umpires Association - and it won a certification vote as the legal representative of the umpires. It would take years to reach a final settlement regarding the fate of the umpires who had resigned, but eventually they were all able to either retire with benefits or be reintegrated in the regular umpire ranks. In 2000, the two league umpiring staffs were joined into a single roster, while the new association proved to be much more adept than its predecessor at negotiating work and salary conditions without resorting to walk-outs.

Further Reading[edit]

  • Robert Elias and Peter Dreier: Major League Rebels: Baseball Battles Over Workers Rights and American Empire, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2022. ISBN 978-1-5381-5888-3
  • William B. Gould IV: Bargaining with Baseball: Labor Relations in an Age of Prosperous Turmoil, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2011.
  • Lee Lowenfish: The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball's Labor Wars, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2010.
  • Marvin Miller: A Whole Different Ball Game: The Inside Story of the Baseball Revolution, Ivan R. Dee Publishers, Chicago, IL, 2004. ISBN 1566635993
  • Bill Swank: "Strike Out: A 1946 Baseball Strike?", The National Pastime, SABR, Number 20 (2000), pp. 16-19.
  • Krister Swanson: Baseball's Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2016. ISBN 978-0-8032-5523-4