The Fatherhood Movement & Underdog Social Movements in History (Part II: The Rise of the Players’ Union)

Background: In my recent post The Fatherhood Movement & Underdog Social Movements in History (Part I: The ‘Battle of Deputies Run’) I explained:

“Being committed to a movement which has not yet come into its prime–the fatherhood movement–I’m sometimes interested in the stories of the unlikely successes of other social movements.

One of the biggest underdog movements in history to succeed, though we don’t talk about it much, is the industrial labor movement. Most of the big industrial unions were formed during the 1930s, under conditions which, in retrospect, seem mind-boggling. Amid massive unemployment and widespread poverty, facing off unscrupulous, lawless bosses and their violent hired thugs as well as hostile and sometimes violent police, working men utilized strikes, sit-downs and other methods to build strong, vibrant labor unions.

I think one could fairly say that, given what these men achieved, it is impossible to ever claim that any reasonable movement cannot succeed.”

In my previous post I cited the famous Minneapolis Teamsters strike in 1934, wherein striking workers and their supporters squared off against police and company-hired thugs in what’s known as the “Battle of Deputies Run.” Another example, more modern and more genteel, is the rise of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association from 1966 to 1981.

Today’s astronomical baseball salaries have made many forget that for 100 years baseball players were treated terribly. Owners had all of the power in the relationship, in part because of the reserve clause, which mandated that a player could only play for one team unless they traded or released him. With almost no negotiating power, players were vastly underpaid in relation to the value they brought to the industry. Prior to the union era, many retired players lived in poverty or scraped by on menial jobs.

That began to change in 1966 when Marvin Miller, formerly one of the leaders of the Steelworkers’ union, became the head of the Players’ Association. The union faced a hostile press, hostile, idiotic baseball fans, and some of the wealthiest people in the country, the club owners. In 1972 the owners tried to roll back the already meager pension the baseball players received, and it led to the first strike in baseball history. The owners sought to provoke the strike in order to break the nascent union, and Miller himself thought there was little the players would be able to do about it, at least in the short term.

The excerpt below is from Marvin Miller’s fascinating autobiography A Whole Different Ball Game. In it, Miller informs the 48 player representatives (two per team) of the owners’ position on the pension issue and recommends that they not strike.

Excerpted from “A Whole Different Ball Game”:

“The meeting [in Dallas] got underway. After reviewing all that had happened during the negotiations, I recommended that we delay striking. Hands shot up all over the room. The players were more committed to accepting the owner”s challenge to strike than I had realized; in fact, they were positively militant. Soon I found myself playing the role of devil”s advocate, trying to be as realistic (even pessimistic) as possible. I explained the hardships involved. I pointed out that we had no strike fund, no field offices, and no public relations staff; the press would likely be hostile; and on and on. To no avail. Player after player stood up to convince me that they were united, that they were hell-bent on taking the fight to the owners–even though it was impossible to know how long the strike would last.

“Roughly four hours into the meeting, one of the player reps, impatient with the continuing discussion, started to chant: ‘Strike! Strike! Strike!’ It was picked up by the others and repeated over and over.

It reminded me of a scene from Clifford Odets”s play, Waiting for Lefty, in which a group of cab drivers, preyed on by racketeers and exploited by corrupt taxi owners, have gathered for a meeting. They, wait, but the union leader, Lefty, doesn”t show, and they finally learn he has been murdered. The cabbies refuse to be intimidated and begin shouting in unison, ‘Strike! Strike! Strike!’ The play presented an overly sentimental view of the labor movement in the 1930″s, but that scene packed an emotional punch. I was similarly moved by the dramatic turn of events at the Dallas meeting, more so since this wasn”t staged.

“For the first time in baseball history, the players wanted to fight management head on. Our new draft resolution would be a lot simpler–a declaration to strike immediately. The remaining exhibition games on or after April 1 would be canceled, as would the regular season games until a satisfactory settlement was reached. The final tally was 47-0 in favor of a strike.”

Brooks Robinson (pictured) was one of the players who took a leading role in the strike. The Players’ Association–though poorly funded, inexperienced and manned mostly by very young men–stood its ground, forced the owners to back down, and won the strike. Once a small, completely ineffective organization, the union stunned the sports world by racking up win after win, culminating in their victorious 1981 baseball strike to protect their right to free agency.

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