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

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Aug. 31, 2012
  • Updated Oct. 30, 2014 at 10:15 AM EST
Marvin Miller was largely responsible for building the baseball players' union and his efforts provide guidelines for cycling's professionals. AP Photo

More than economics

When I ask Miller whether he saw the baseball players’ plight as one of economic or human injustice, he responds that, “it was both.” And, he points out, framing the issue as one of both human and economic rights is the best way to forward a labor group’s point of view with the public. “It can’t be economics alone,” he says.

When considering how a balancing of power in cycling might affect those that currently corner that power — namely the ASO — Miller says “the baseball experience is something that has not been given its proper due.”

Miller points out that player salaries and benefits have grown tremendously since unionization. The minimum player salary in 1965 was $6,000 (roughly $43,000 when adjusted for inflation). Today it is $480,000. Average salaries have grown from $44,676 in 1975 to $3.1 million in 2011.

But the attendant growth of the larger baseball industry “is even more remarkable.”

“When the union started, the combined revenue of the industry was less than $50 million a year. That’s million with an M. Last year it was seven billion. That’s billion with a B,” says Miller.

Because of the overall growth of the game precipitated by unionization, Miller says the team owners “have far more dollars to pay all their costs, plus more profits than they ever have had before.”

Miller tells me that when the baseball players began pushing for a bigger share of the baseball pie, the team owners cried poverty and argued that higher salaries and benefits would bankrupt the game. However, the teams refused to prove that point, and like the ASO, kept their ledger shut.

“They eventually caved on the question of what was secret and what was not,” Miller explains. “Because we began to threaten them with unfair labor practice charges which they desperately wanted to avoid.”

Once the teams began to reveal their enormous revenues, poverty became a bogus platform for argument, and the players gained both more credibility and leverage over the game that they made happen.

Could a pro cycling leader pull off a similar balancing coup with the ASO? And how about with the UCI in terms of demanding more transparency and consistent enforcement of its technical and doping rules?

Time will dictate, but Miller says that leader needs a certain skill set. The first tool is experience. “I had been active with trade unions all my life,” Miller says of his life before baseball. Said leader would want “a lot of experience to fall back on.”

He also cites “the personal touch” as a key quality for a sports labor leader. “The knowledge of what your membership was feeling and what they were thinking and what they wanted,” says Miller.

Finally, cycling’s Marvin Miller must be both a tireless student and a teacher. “You wanted [the athletes] to learn from the get-go what a trade union was and how it operated,” he says. “And the way to do it was to study and understand the nature of the industry they were in.”

Beyond that, Miller says patience and repetition are essential while “people absorb information and begin to learn to the point where you can just exult that you had a membership that had a large cadre of activists who understood better than the owners how the industry operated and how badly they have been exploited.”

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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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