Advertisement
Sports

The Shortest Labor Stoppage in U.S. Sports History

Baseball's two-day strike in 1985 led to later labor unrest.

by Erick Fernandez
Aug 7 2015, 4:13pm

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The 1985 MLB players strike can be best compared to a Jimmy Rollins rap song—you may or may not have known that it happened, but if you did, you kind of just forgot about it.

Friday marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the two-day strike—the shortest work stoppage in modern U.S. sports history. All 25 games slated for August 6th and 7th of that year were rescheduled at the end of the year, so no actual games were missed.

Read More: Lost Greatness, Scar Tissue, and Survival: The Life of Baseball's Brief Superstar, Dickie Thon

The 1985 stoppage came in the middle of a 23-year span of tumultuous labor relations between the players and the owners that went from 1972 all the way to 1995.

This strike, like every other strike in sports history, was about money.

Owners in 1985 made a decades-old claim that baseball was losing money, even though MLB signed a massive six-year television deal in 1983 worth over $1 billion. This situation was akin to the NBA alleging in July that a "significant number" of teams are losing money despite a lucrative new television deal and increased revenues.

According to Fortune, that 1983 TV deal quadrupled MLB's revenue. Before the deal, the players' pension fund was receiving a third of the television revenue at $15.5 million annually. The players association wanted to maintain that one-third figure for the new television deal, but eventually settled on $196 million over the six year span—about 18 percent.

One of the major changes the owners attempted to implement during this two-day negotiation was the addition of an arbitration cap. According to the New York Times, "the owners had proposed an average payroll plan that would have served as a salary cap, as well as proposing the arbitration cap." Neither came to fruition.

Along with being denied that cap, owners saw the minimum league salary rise from $40,000 to $60,000.

The biggest concession made by the players was that the service time needed to be eligible for salary arbitration went from two years to three years.

The short-lived 1985 strike did not disrupt that year's World Series, which was won by the Kansas City Royals. Photo by Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Although the '85 strike was short-lived, there were lingering aftereffects. Numerous owners team executives, who were unhappy with commissioner Peter Ueberroth's handling of the negotiations, were irate at the outcome."He's a no-good s.o.b.," a National League owner reportedly told the Chicago Tribune. "We could have gotten the whole thing but Ueberroth forced the settlement for his personal benefit. All he cares about is making a big reputation himself."

There was more criticism for Ueberroth: "We got the bad end on the arbitration, no question about that," an American League owner told the Tribune. "It could save us maybe $500-600,000, pennies compared to what we would have gained by the cap."

The owners were so mad that they colluded to not sign each other's players during the next three offseasons from 1985-1987, an attempt to eliminate competition and drive down the price of the players. This violated the Collective Bargaining Agreement article that states "players shall not act in concert with other players and clubs shall not act in concert with other clubs."

After being found guilty of collusion, the owners had to pay players a total of $280 million in damages.

Beyond a hefty price tag, the owners' tactics led to greater labor-management mistrust. Players learned that owners were willing to break the CBA; owners remained bitter. The two sides failed to develop an amicable relationship, and the ongoing tension carried into the 1990s. "There's this idea that when parties bargain collectively, they learn about each other's negotiating behaviors," said Michael LeRoy, a professor of labor and employment relations and of law at the University of Illinois. "One explanation for lengthy strikes is that parties misconstrue and miscalculate the behavior of the other parties."

Work stoppages, LeRoy said, can be caused by strategic flaws on one or both sides of the negotiating table. In MLB's case, the owners continued to miscalculate as they continued to press for the salary cap in 1994 despite numerous previous failed attempts.

"The '85 strike could have set the stage for that kind of miscalculation about the willingness of players to forego the ['94] season," LeRoy said.

Today, we know how that miscalculation played out: the owners tried to play chicken with the players, and again ended up losing on the biggest issue, the salary cap. The failed to learn the lesson of the 1985 two-day strike, in which a seeming resolution ended up being a band-aid to a much larger problem.