Michael Weiner: A New Kind Of Leadership For The Players' Union

Major League Baseball Executive Vice President Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Michael Weiner attend a news conference at MLB headquarters in New York City. Selig and Weiner announced a new five-year labor agreement between the MLB and the MLBPA. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Baseball is in the midst of 21 years of labor peace. Much of that is due to a strong players union. Michael Weiner leads the union, drawing on the strength of his well-known predecessors but with his own style.

Michael Weiner is executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. You've heard his name. Probably seen a photo or two of him if you followed coverage of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement reached in late November. But you don't know much about him. You should.

Weiner has spent his entire professional career with the MLBPA. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1986, clerked for a federal judge for two years and then went to work for the union as a staff lawyer. In just six years, he worked his way up to become general counsel. He took over as executive director in late 2009, when Donald Fehr retired. (Fehr has since become the executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association.)

You know about Fehr. And you know about Marvin Miller.

Miller joined the MLBPA after a stint with the United Steelworkers Union, and turned the MLBPA into a professional, powerhouse union. In 1968, Miller negotiated the first collective-bargaining agreement with baseball's owners. Two years later, he got the owners to agree to an arbitration process to resolve grievances, laying the groundwork for the modern arbitration process for resolving salary disputes. Miller also spearheaded the players' efforts to gain free agency, which began in 1975. Miller stepped down in 1983 after successfully navigating the players through the 1981 strike.

Fehr was Miller's hand-picked successor. He joined the MLBPA as general counsel in 1977 and ascended to the top position upon Miller's retirement. The tough, gruff negotiator successfully led the players through the 1994 strike and several lawsuits accusing the owners of collusion. During Fehr's tenure, the average player salary rose from $269,000 per season to $3.24 million. The players and their union flourished under Fehr's hard-nosed leadership.

Weiner worked closely with Fehr for many years but brings a different style to the executive director's suite. Where Fehr was known as dogmatic, confrontational and brusque, Weiner is seen as more pragmatic and down-to-earth. But even with his more laid-back approach, Weiner is no less a strong advocate for the players than was Fehr. Weiner took the lead in hammering out the most contentious terms in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. He succeeded, in part, due to his good working relationship with Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president of labor relations, and not in spite of it.

With the CBA in place for the next five years, Weiner has turned his attention to other hot-button issues. He's already negotiating the 2013 regular-season schedule with the Commissioner's office. With the Astros moving to the American League next season, putting fifteen teams in each league, any hope of reducing the frequency of interleague games is gone. But the players object to interleague games down the stretch, in September, with playoff races coming down to the wire. In March, Weiner talked about scheduling with Sean McAdam of Comcast Sportsnet New England.

Weiner said the two sides are working on a format to ensure that interleague play is limited to a maximum of two series per team in the final month to avoid such inequities.

"That's very important to us,'' said Weiner. "We want to have as little interleague play as possible, knowing that there has to be some. But also, ideally, we'd like to have it so that, in the last month of the season, no team plays more than one away interleague series.

"Ideally no team would play more than one interleague series, period (in September). But when you're playing away, you're playing under rules that are not your normal rules. We're trying to get to a place where no team would play more than three games in September (under) the opposite league's rules.''

Weiner made headlines last Wednesday, when he gave a lunch-time speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. A good portion of his comments was directed to efforts underway, nationwide, to strip workers of collective-bargaining rights. He called those efforts "fundamentally unfair" and "counterproductive." Dave Shenin of the Washington Post reported that Weiner debated whether to address his comments beyond baseball.

"Prudence tells a guy who has worked entire professional career in baseball to limit his remarks to baseball. On my other shoulder, opportunity tells me that I should at least try to relate baseball’s bargaining success to the broader world. This is the National Press Club, after all. It’s not the ‘Mike and Mike’ show."

Conjuring his predecessors Miller and Fehr, Weiner continued:

"But why is it not acceptable for workers to exercise the only leverage they possess – to act collectively? If you take bargaining rights away from Wisconsin schoolteachers or Indiana factory workers, it leaves one side in a contest with no ability to compete ... The economic health of our country will not be revitalized by depriving workers of their voice."

Weiner then took questions from the audience and his answers were as interesting as his prepared speech. He was asked about whether the Hall of Fame should admit players who've been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

"It's a museum," Weiner said. "If you want to have some notation on their plaque that indicates that they were either judged to have used performance enhancing substances or accused of having done that, so be it."

Weiner said he was speaking his personal opinion and not an official position of the union.

"There will be people in the Hall of Fame who have been judged by several arbitrators to have engaged in a massive conspiracy called collusion to defraud the fans of free competition," Weiner said. Those people belong in the Hall of Fame as well. So, from my perspective, the Hall of Fame is for the best baseball players and most influential executives that have been involved, and they should all be in."

On the subject of the designated hitter:

"Neither the owners nor the players came to the bargaining table this time looking to change the rules regarding the designated hitter," he said. "I don't think anyone would design an industry where one league has one set of rules and the other has another, but I think that compromise, if you will, is here to stay for a long time."

Weiner was asked if players should have any say in who the next commissioner will be. He demurred, saying that is the owners' decision. He then quipped that it will be "20, 30, 40 years from now" before current commissioner Bud Selig retires.

Witty, but realistic. Fierce, but contemplative. High-powered, but unpretentious. Weiner will need all those traits as he navigates the players through a thicket of issues left open under the new CBA, including improving player-umpire relations, implementing additional video review during games, and testing for human growth hormones.

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