MLB Changes Pension System, Can Basically Be As Big Of A Jerk As It Wants

Punch a baby? Major League Baseball can probably do that. Dump raw sewage in a pristine wetland? Why not? Take over the meth trade in New Mexico? I'm not sure why it would want to, given how profitable it is right now, but yeah, Bud Selig and his heir-apparent Rob Manfred would do that. MLB has gotten pretty shameless lately.

Last month, under the cover of darkness, Adam Rubin reports that Major League Baseball’s owners voted to remove the requirement that clubs offer their non-uniformed personnel pensions. The same issue was brought up last year, but was apparently tabled when the public got wind of it, and MLB chief operating officer and commissioner-in-waiting Rob Manfred said that there hadn’t been a discussion about it.

Until now, baseball’s workers have been lucky. As American industries have turned away from pensions, MLB employees had a secure system they could count on. Manfred, who last year asked us to believe this very proposal hadn’t been discussed and wasn’t going to be part of the game’s immediate future, says that no teams have taken advantage of it yet, and that club’s won’t be required to change anything, “I’m going to say it again: nobody changed any benefits. And it remains to be seen whether or not that’s going to happen.” But…I mean…come on! Do we look stupid?

 

Baseball’s owners would not be authorizing this if they didn’t plan to break away from the established system, and start making employees contribute to their own retirement funds. They advocated and voted for this freedom because they intend to use it. And it’s been established, especially for low-income earners like grounds keepers and clubhouse managers and the like, that pensions are better (and far safer) in the long term for employees. Manfred is being remarkably disingenuous when he suggests that clubs might not take advantage of this change and that “a lot of young people would rather have a defined-contribution plan [a 401(k) rather than a pension].

It’s true that companies tend to prefer 401(k)s to pensions because the former provide less long-term liability. Businesses, in theory, transfer the money to the employee to invest and wash their hands of it, whereas they remain on the hook for the money they promise to employees under the latter. But baseball teams’ non-uniform personnel costs aren’t comparable to Ford or GM or Boeing, each of whom have more than a hundred-thousand employees to account for. The demand for the sport, franchise values, and league revenues have only increased over past several seasons. Major League Baseball made an estimated $8 billion last year, a new record for the league. Next year, Maury Brown predicts revenues could climb to $8.5-9 billion. There is not a foreseeable future where Baseball will not be able to meet these obligations. It simply does not want to.

What else would we expect, however, from a league that has, over the last several years, consistently taken rights and freedoms away from those people who have the least? With the help of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Major League Baseball has unilaterally imposed a restriction on how much amateur free agents from the United States and from abroad can make in bonus money, and they’ve kept minor league salaries at an absolute minimum (a law suit filed this week by former minor leaguers claimed (credibly, I might add, having worked with minor league players before and having seen their work habits and pay checks) “they were paid $3,000 to $7,500 for a season, despite working more than 50 hours per week”) while restricting minor league players’ right to form an independent union. And this is to say nothing of the rising costs of attending a ballgame for American families. Loosening the requirements on clubs to offer additional benefits to employees is just another way the game is kicking dirt in the face of baseball’s less fortunate.

What’s worse is that Major League Baseball seems immune from the market forces that might otherwise pressure them to keep the pension system around. Sure, a few potential employees will opt out into other fields, or will not consider a career path in baseball. But there is no shortage of qualified applicants clamoring to get into the sport any way they can, taking jobs that underpay them significantly and diligently working 60-80 hours per week (indeed, baseball’s interns have traditionally worked ungodly hours, doing the jobs of people who would typically have a college degree or better, for free to get a foot in the door). Baseball teams will not miss the few that seek their fortunes elsewhere. Indeed, potential employees would probably submit to daily beatings to work in the game, if that’s what it took (I’m pretty sure the Marlins are already doing this, in addition to contractually prohibiting their front office employees from seeking promotions elsewhere). That doesn’t make it right.

Yes, baseball is a business, and business is generally cold to arguments of what is right and what is wrong. But the game is also a public trust written into the fabric of the communities it claims as its own. Baseball teams receive tremendous local and state subsidies and leeway to build and operate their ballparks. The public generally bears the cost of traffic increases and tax breaks for privately held, fantastically profitable clubs. It thrives, in part, because of the anti-trust exemptions put in place and maintained by the American government. These teams don’t just have an obligation to their fans, but to their employees to act fairly and in good faith. Instead, they continue to increase the burden on those who have the least, while whining about how much more they need for us to give.

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