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Commentary: Building a cycling union, straight from Miller’s mouth

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Aug. 31, 2012
  • Updated Dec. 25, 2012 at 4:53 PM EDT
Marvin Miller was largely responsible for building the baseball players' union and his efforts provide guidelines for cycling's professionals. AP Photo


Editor’s note: As we ring out 2012, we look at 12 of our favorite stories of the year. Mark Johnson’s wide-ranging interview with former baseball players’ union chief Marvin Miller and his commentary on building a professional cycling union first appeared in August. Miller died on November 27 at the age of 95.

Shortly after my opinion piece on pro cycling and Marvin Miller ran on VeloNews.com this month, I received an email from his daughter, Susan Miller. Her father had read the piece, liked it, and wanted to talk.

Soon, I’m on the phone with Marvin himself, the labor leader and economist whose mobilization of baseball players in the 1960s and 1970s revolutionized the business of baseball. The hour-long conversation ranged from the genesis of Miller’s game-changing role in Major League Baseball to doping in sport and provided a number of lessons as riders and teams attempt to organize themselves more strategically in our own sport.

A phone call

“Could you speak up just a little louder?” Miller asks. At 95 years old, his hearing is not what it used to be.

Miller starts by explaining why, in 1965, he was inspired to step away from his role in organizing steelworkers to lead pro athletes.

With big labor unions, “you didn’t have that personal relationship because it was just too big,” he says. He elucidates, spelling out the numbers with a precision suggesting Miller’s keen interest in the minutiae of business: “When I left the steelworkers for example, they had a million, two-hundred and forty-nine thousand members. And you couldn’t get to know them if you lived to be a thousand.”

“I wanted an opportunity to start something from scratch,” he says. To organize a small group of players (about 600 in 1965; 1,300 today), was an opportunity for Miller to work face-to face with those he represented.

The comment is telling, since today’s pro cyclists point to their sheer numbers and global dispersion as one reason it is difficult to organize. Yet, today’s 900 top-level pro riders are few compared to the organizations Miller left. Working with a small group of athletes “was a powerful factor that made the offer of the job very interesting to me,” Miller recalls.

Another challenge that keeps pro cyclists from organizing is that the sport takes a short-term view. Sponsors and rider contracts are fleeting. Races appear and disappear. Riders’ livelihoods are tenuous, which makes it difficult to convince them to make short-term sacrifices to realize the long-term rewards of solidarity.

As Thor Hushovd told me in 2011 when I described Marvin Miller to the Norwegian star, if the riders were to demand a share of profit or not ride, “maybe we lose six months of racing.” Speculating about what might happen under the steady hand of a Miller-like figure, Hushovd says the riders never try the experiment because “nobody wants to lose one race.”

“That was difficult,” Miller says of his initial efforts at getting the players to look beyond immediate losses to larger, long-term benefits. “But the exploitation was so great that once they began to understand that no one was doing them any favors,” their attitudes began to change.

“They were the game,” Miller points out. This is a reality that is also the case today in pro cycling, where the stars are the race, not the organizer nor the governing body.

Of the players, Miller says he “found that while they were really beginners at trade unionism and understanding it, they were among the fastest learners I had ever met.” Once the athletes grasped the gulf between their pay and their actual market value, Miller says painful awareness of their exploitation propelled them past trepidations about the short-term sacrifices of a strike.

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Writer-photographer Mark Johnson's work has been published in titles including VeloNews in the United States, Cycling Weekly in the UK, Vélo in France, and Ride Cycling Review in Australia as well as general-interest publications including The Wall Street Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune. His book on the Garmin pro team, Argyle Armada, was published by VeloPress in 2012. A Cat. 2 road cyclist, Mark has bicycled across the United States twice and completed an Ironman triathlon. He graduated from UC San Diego and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University. His other passion is surfing, which he does frequently from his home in Del Mar, California. Follow him on Twitter @ironstringmark.

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