Donald Fehr, Trade Unionist

Once upon a time, back round 2009, I wrote for a site that was called “Informative Sports”. In my view, it was a damn good endeavor to present a view of sports that presented an alternative view to the usual pablum that was usually offered on other sports sites. Those who were connected with that site had high hopes for something bigger and better but it never came to be… So it goes…

However, that was where I first began to write stuff that people could see over the web and I was able to revive and rehone my dormant writer’s chops. But, I guess if I look at the big picture it paved the way for David to initiate and found 7PoundBag. So, maybe everything does happen for a reason…  anyway… for your perusal, I offer this flashback to the year 2009 and stuff that was running around my brain…

Donald Fehr’s decision to quit as the titular head of the MLBPA should have sent ripples of seismic proportions through the baseball universe. Yet, the morning after his announcement there appears to have been a shrug roll in the tabloids. One paper I perused June 23, 2009 morning had a teensy tiny sidebar-like inset on the third page of the sports section.  Another did have two pages devoted to Fehr but little more than the regular stuff pulled out for most “dog and pony” public displays.

Fehr has left his imprint upon the sport. The manner in which baseball players are paid for their skills and abilities and how they are treated as employees has changed forever mainly due to his efforts. Could another negotiator have gotten the players the ability to earn huge salaries, achieve great post career benefits and be relatively free from their employer having the ability to “violate their constitutional rights” by testing them for drugs? Maybe.

Early pic of Miller and Fehr
Early pic of Miller and Fehr

Fehr has had his critics, but in a way, Marvin Miller, his mentor, may have been his most hard critic in the final analysis.  Miller to this day says he never would have allowed MLB to introduce drug testing into Baseball. To this day Fehr says he still believes the union’s stance of protecting players from being tested was the correct stance. Left unsaid is that he allowed any level of testing in the collective bargaining agreement in 2002 and the door open for more in depth testing in the future, more because of public perception and the possibility of Congressional intercession than from believing it was the right thing to do.  Miller says as the protocols regarding testing are emended and changed for players that the union, (Fehr), will regret this “…because you are going to see players going to jail.”   Miller’s hard line stance has always been, “I would not have allowed for so-called universal testing. I am aware the Constitution of the United States does not prohibit private management from doing such testing, but I do know that the founders of this country wrote that the government can’t do that. And by court decisions, state and

Marvin Miller organizing players
Marvin Miller organizing players

local cannot do this. You cannot test everybody in sight. What you have to do is handle it on an individual basis. You need probable cause for believing this person may be guilty and therefore want permission from the court to test. I would have stood my ground on that.”

But if Miller appears to be a hard critic on Fehr regarding testing, he also says in Fehr’s defense, “… I hasten to add that this is not entirely a criticism of the union leadership. Because I am aware of the situation among the players. They have wives, older brothers, parents, neighbors, friends and a lot of them are just plain uniformed people affected by the propaganda. ‘(People say)… Why should you be stained with this testing when you’re innocent?’”

“When I established the union in 1966, it was relatively easy to rally the players. They were already worked up over a number of issues, the principal one being pension. It was easy to get them to listen to you and understand the importance of collective bargaining. It wasn’t that way for Don: sometimes the success of the union worked against him. There’s a natural tendency for people to believe that the conditions that exist when they come into a new situation are the way things have always been. Ballplayers are no different. When I started out, people were accusing me of being a ‘militant’ — they didn’t have any idea how militant some players like Bob Friend, Robin Roberts, and Ralph Kiner were. I didn’t have to make them more militant, I only had to organize them.”

Fehr grew up in Prairie Village, Kansas rooting for the Kansas City A’s. He graduated from Indiana University and Missouri-Kansas City Law School. After law school, he eventually became associated with the Kansas City law firm of Jolley, Moran, Walsh, Hager & Gordon, where, on behalf of the MLBPA, in 1976 he worked on the landmark Messersmith-McNally free agency case.

1976 Associated with the Kansas City law firm of Jolley, Moran, Walsh, Hager & Gordon, where, on behalf of the MLBPA, he worked on the landmark Messersmith-McNally free agency case
1977 Joined MLBPA as general counsel & becomes a protégé of Marvin Miller
1983 Named acting executive director of MLBPA
1984 Led MLBPA on two-day strike.
1985 Leads work stoppage in August that lasted 25 days.
1985 In December is named executive director of MLBPA
1994 Leads MLBPA on strike; World   Series cancelled.
2003 Negotiates new collective bargaining agreement but opens the door for drug testing
2008 Negotiates new collective bargaining agreement
2009 Announces his pending retirement on or before 3/31/10

Messersmith-McNally was base upon two MLB players challenging the right of MLB owners to hold the employment or contract rights to a ballplayer forever. The players, (see also Curt Flood), claimed that was an infringement upon their rights as citizens and an illegal and unconstitutional bar to enjoy the freedom to freely shop their skills within a given market.  Soon after Fehr’s work and due diligence of the facts revolving around this case, an arbitrator invalidated the so-called reserve clause which had bound a player to a team throughout their major league career unless the rights were traded to another team.  Fehr successfully represented the players as the court upheld the arbitrator’s decision in the Messersmith-McNally case, when the owners appealed the decision. Fehr was hired by the union soon afterward.

His accomplishments …and his failures, and, there have been a few… are well documented. Fehr took the baton from original Players Union head Marvin Miller and took it running hard.  Less than two years after assuming the acting directorship of the union, he led the players on a work stoppage that lasted 25 days in August 1985. Within two months of that work stoppage, he impressed union leadership, and membership, enough to have “made his bones” and he assumed the title “executive director” instead of “acting executive director” of the union.

He was originally promoted to acting executive director in 1983, after a failed transition from Marvin Miller to the former federal mediator Kenneth Moffett.

Fehr is a tenacious and a well-prepared, well-spoken negotiator for the union in all discussions with MLB. He is usually described as one of trade unionism’s most powerful men in his industry, sports labor relations, through much of the 1990s and into the 2000’s.

Marvin Miller returned to the trade unionist action when the then weak and ineffectual MLBPA begged him to come out of retirement and lead them into negotiations with MLB and the owners.   At the time, it was said that Miller would be nothing more than a benevolent dictator to the players and that he would only be spouting chapter and verse on trade unionist practice as he made the real decisions with MLB. However, the reality was that Miller took the time to educate the players on their needed investment and their responsibilities to their own cause. Miller labored diligently so that every player understood that “the union was only as strong as its weakest link”. Miller built and strengthened the union by hearing what the players had to say and then by showing them how to work and earn what they wanted in their negotiations with baseball management

Fehr learned these same lessons in trade unionism under Miller. He learned that the union was supposed to be about thefehr5 members of the union, i.e., the players. He learned that his true role was to be the figurehead to the public of the membership. The players meet, they talk amongst themselves expressing various opinions and then decide, through voting on the issues, what they want to tell management they deserve.  The MLBPA’s positions were the players’ positions first and once decided upon became Donald Fehr’s potions. Donald Fehr’s job as the “leader” of the MLBPA was to protect the players’ right and need to bargain as one collective organization for the best deal they can exact from their bosses. And, that just because they as athletes happen to make large sums of money doesn’t mean they have to subjugate their right to collective bargaining. Fehr did all of the aforementioned and he did it very well.

Fehr bucked the trend of other union leaders in the other major sports by making sure the voice of the players was heard and upheld.  In his 25-plus-year reign as the player’s union leader, other leagues adopted management-friendly policies such as various types of salary caps. Fehr built the MLBPA as the other three major sports, the NBA, NFL and NHL, all failed in their labor battles with their respective leagues. The other three major sports all saw their unions weakened and even broken as is the case with the paper tiger NFL Players Association that has been called by some pundits as nothing more than a “house union”. Fehr, however, built and presided over the strongest and most powerful player’s association in sports by not succumbing to the pressure of the press, and by extension the scrutiny of the public, or to management’s antiunion and propaganda tactics.

When MLB management proposed small token appeasements in reply to the union demands, Fehr in his distinctive aggressive and self-assured, well-prepared manner quite simply went for the jugular by saying “No” and in return asked for the sky. The players, as a result, saw their salaries grow to levels that have more than quintupled since the 1990’s and have seen their benefits outperform the biggest and best financed health and pension  plans of some of the most prestigious corporations in the United States. None of these benefits happened overnight and little happened without tension and contentious times as the union fought to gain their due portion of the profits of MLB that were lining the insatiable owner’s pockets.

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