Michael Weiner’s legacy on and off the field

When baseball fans wax philosophic about the sport – as so many of us are apt to do – we often comment on the virtue of our beloved national pastime, the integrity of the athletes, and the indelible influence the sport has had on our history and culture. We talk not about what‘s best for an individual player or a single owner, but rather what’s best for the game. Interestingly, those same values come to mind when I reflect on the legacy of Michael Weiner, Major League Baseball Players Association’s executive director.

Mike’s passing last Thursday at the age of 51 after a courageous battle with brain cancer is a tremendous loss for his family, for major league baseball players, for his friends and colleagues, and the game of baseball. But it’s also a loss for all workers in every field – many of whom are likely baseball fans, yet may never recognize the name Michael Weiner, a man who was in fact one of their greatest champions. Mike fundamentally believed in collective bargaining. He believed that workers – whether baseball players or employees on the auto assembly line – deserved a voice on the job. His work on behalf of Major League Baseball players, starting as a staff attorney in 1988 and later as general counsel before assuming the executive director role in 2009, is a testament to those values and to his belief in the dignity of work no matter where it’s done and who’s doing it.

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His tenure with the MLBPA speaks for itself. By nearly every conceivable measure, baseball players are better off today than they were when he first walked into the MLBPA offices in 1988. They earn higher minimum salaries, enjoy greater free agency rights, and work in a safer environment.

None of those gains were a given though, and few were achieved without struggle. Baseball players didn’t always have the negotiating power and muscle that they do today, and it was their union that helped them fight for fair compensation – the same way firefighters’ and teachers’ unions do for their members. Led first by the late, legendary Marvin Miller and then Donald Fehr, the MLBPA fought for the players’ share of baseball’s revenue through years of collective bargaining – and they did so in the face of incredible opposition from management. When owners attempted to pressure the players into inadequate deals through the force of lockouts and colluded to limit player salaries, the MLBPA and its leadership were there standing up for their guys.

Today, many regard the MLBPA as the strongest union in professional sports. The players and owners completed their last round of collective bargaining in 2011 without a work stoppage, marking the third consecutive time they have bargained successfully. It’s a stark contrast to the NFL and NBA collective bargaining sessions of late, several of which have ended in lockouts where players were pushed for concessions. 

When asked at the National Press Club why baseball players did what the other professional leagues couldn’t, Mike responded, “Baseball owners’ desires have not changed. They want to pay players as little as possible and control their services as long as possible… What has changed is that baseball owners…have come to respect the collective power of their bargaining adversary, the players.” He was a man who knew the power of the process – he believed in the game, and he believed in fairness.

The desire to protect profits and control services goes beyond baseball team owners; it’s the bottom-line mentality that governs just about all of business today. In a market-driven economy, most employers want to squeeze their workers as much as they can.  It’s through unions that workers earn a real seat at the table, and with that, the opportunity to gain respect and a voice on the job.

It was Mike’s tenacity – coupled with the strength of players past and present – that earned the union the respect of Major League Baseball owners. While too modest to ever take credit, Mike’s role in empowering those players, and in helping to prepare them to sit across from some of the country’s most formidable business owners, cannot be understated. The number of players who have spoken out to recognize his remarkable influence on them – personally and professionally – has been truly remarkable.

For those of us who made a career out of fighting for workers, Mike’s conviction that every worker should have access to the same basic rights didn’t go unnoticed. He used his profile and his platform to speak out against laws that limited collective bargaining in the public sector and against extremist “right to work” policies that stripped private sector workers of their rights on the job. When talking to a Beltway policy crowd a few years ago, Mike explained that in a country where corporations and politicians will try every play in the book to get their way, collective bargaining is the one fundamental leverage point workers can have, and that it was a right worth protecting.

Michael Weiner’s most visible professional legacy will be the strength of the MLBPA he leaves behind and the voice he helped his members achieve. But he should really be remembered as a champion for all workers seeking an opportunity to better their lives. He was an incredible person and a true friend of working people, and he will be sorely missed.

Bonior served in the House from 1977 to 2003 and is a former Majority Whip. He was also board chair of American Rights at Work, and is now on the Board of Directors of Jobs With Justice.