A fight over health care benefits between unionized workers and management at a factory in Pennsylvania has gotten the attention of Major League Baseball’s players, who are urging the workers to “stick together” against an effort to double health premiums without increasing benefits.
The dispute is centered at a VF Majestic factory in Pennsylvania, where all of Major League Baseball’s jerseys are manufactured, and it set to heat up when a three-year labor agreement expires Friday. The workers, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, haven’t authorized a strike and are hoping to avoid one as they push back against Majestic in upcoming negotiating sessions. Heading into those negotiations, the workers received advice and support from Michael Weiner, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Player’s Association, the Allentown (PA) Morning Call reports:
“At the end of 2011, our union negotiated a successful new collective bargaining agreement that will expire in December 2016,” wrote Michael Weiner, the Players Association’s executive director and general counsel. “Now is the time for all of you to stick together so that you can achieve your goal as well: a fair contract with good wages, good health care and respect on the job.”
In an interview, Weiner said the players have weighed in on other labor disputes relating to licensed products when they felt it was merited. The union has enjoyed a good relationship with VF Majestic and prefers that the products that bear its players names be made by union workers in the United States.
“We take seriously our role as a union,” he said.
This isn’t the first time the players’ unions have spoken out on behalf of workers — when Michigan Republicans were rushing so-called “right-to-work” legislation to gut the state’s labor laws through the legislature, Weiner told ThinkProgress that “all union members — either auto workers, teachers, firefighters, or the American League champion Detroit Tigers — oppose legislation designed to weaken unions.” The National Football League Players Association has taken similar stands, opposing right-to-work legislation in both Michigan and Indiana, where executive director DeMaurice Smith also marched with Indianapolis hotel workers involved in their own labor dispute.
That sort of advocacy is obviously important in the immediate sense. The MLBPA is the strongest union in sports, and it may be one of the strongest unions in America. Majestic may not listen to its own workers — those making around $11 an hour — but the backing of the MLBPA gives the workers a voice and leverage they wouldn’t have had otherwise, insofar that a union committed to donning jerseys made by other union workers has an obvious pressure point against a manufacturer fighting its organized workforce.
But that advocacy — that “tak[ing] seriously our role as a union” — matters in the broader fight for workers’ rights too. Labor disputes in sports are often characterized as simple bickerings between millionaires and billionaires, and players are even painted as part of the corporate class and labeled “everything wrong with America’s financial system.” In reality, though, their fights are fundamentally the same as those involving other workers. Football, baseball, basketball, and hockey players have all had drawn-out disputes over health care, pensions, and wages, just as workers at Majestic or concession workers at San Francisco’s AT&T Park are having right now. In each case, the labor is fighting against a corporate class that wants to keep a larger share of profits to themselves while also cutting into basic necessities like health care and retirement savings.
It’s true that labor fights don’t carry exactly the same implications for professional athletes as they do for “regular” workers, whose declining unionization rates have zapped the middle class and increased inequality. It’s also true, however, that players are working for their livelihood as well, and doing so in a manner that often places them at odds with the corporate class that runs professional sports. In that vein, the Detroit Tigers’ shortstop and the factory worker at the Ford plant down the street are on the same side of the labor equation, and thus are involved in the same fight. And while it’s important that union workers like the concession cashiers and cooks in San Francisco and the uniform-makers at Majestic understand that and support players when they are in the middle of a labor dispute, it is even more important that players understand that and support union workers who are fighting for their well-being every day across this country. In fact, it would be nice to see the professional sports unions acknowledge that fact a little more often.