August 12, 1994: 10 Famous Labor or Protest Strikes (Sports Edition)

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A Brief History

On August 12, 1994, major league baseball players went on strike, ending the 1994 major league baseball season and causing the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.  Sacrilege!  Any labor dispute that cause the cancellation of anything as publicly visible as the World Series is sure to get attention, though labor or protest strikes outside of the sporting world can also be highly visible or even intrusive to the public at large.  Today we list “10 Famous Labor or Protest Strikes” that have particular historical interest or consequence.  What strikes would you add to the list?  (Note: As denizens of the USA, we tend to be America-centric.  Feel free to enlighten us about major sports strikes outside of the US and in sports other than the major American variety.  Thanks.)

Digging Deeper

1. Major League Baseball Players, 1994-1995.

There have been other major league baseball strikes, but only 4 that caused games to be cancelled.  In 1994, the major league season was disrupted by a players’ strike that ended the season starting on August 12, 1994, and as stated above, cost the National Pastime the World Series, arguably the premier sporting event in America.  Lasting 232 days, the strike spilled over into the 1995 season, not ending until April 2. 1995, which made this strike not only the longest in major league history but also the only one to cause games to be cancelled in 2 separate seasons.  The Cleveland Indians were enjoying a renaissance in 1994, their last year in the old Municipal Stadium, and an electrified Cleveland fan base was crushed by the end of the 1994 season.  With a record of 66-47, the Indians were only 1 game out of first place in the AL Central, and playoff excitement had taken hold in Cleveland for the first time since the 1950’s.  In 1995 the forgiving Cleveland fans began a home field sell out streak of 455 games (1995-2001), and incredible show of fan support after the almost non-existent home crowds of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The 1994-1995 MLB strike was the first major sporting leagues strike to result in the cancellation of an entire season, a previously unthinkable circumstance considering the massive amounts of money involved.  The overriding issue involved in this particular strike was the decision by the owners to implement a salary cap to ensure competitiveness for small market teams that were facing financial ruin.

2. Major League Baseball Players, 1981.

Lasting from June 12, 1981, to August 9, 1981, when the baseball stoppage was restarted by the playing of the 1981 All Star Game, the major leagues had lost 713 games in the middle of their season, a whopping 38% of the season.  The issues involved free agency, and the owners sought to regain some of the contractual ground previously lost to the players regarding free agency, including how compensation was calculated.  The issue of free agency and the ability of major league teams to “own” a player limited a player’s bargaining ability for his salary and made the players feel like slaves or indentured servants.  The owners argued that the “reserve clause” and other limits on free agency were needed to ensure a competitive atmosphere within the major leagues, as any other arrangement would result in large market rich teams snarfing up all the best players.  In an effort to salvage some sort of credibility to the 1981 season, the team owners came up with a scheme to consider the season to have been played in 2 halves, with the first place team from each half in each division playing the first place team from the other half season in the same division.  In the case of a team “winning” both half-seasons, a wild card team would play the Division winner for the right to advance in the playoffs.  The last previous attempt at such a split season scheme was during the 1892 season.  The 1981 strike was the first baseball strike that actually caused games to be cancelled since 1972, the other strikes in between failing to cause any game cancellations.  During the 1981 season, teams played different numbers of games, ranging from a low of 102 to a high of 111 games, not very fair when you are tabulating season leaders in performance categories!

3. Major League Baseball Players, 1972.

The first major league baseball strike, the 1972 stoppage lasted from April 1 to April 13, 1972, causing the 1972 season to lose completely those games cancelled because of the strike.  The result was that teams lost between 6 and 9 games from their 1972 season.  The big issues that caused the strike were the players achieving salary arbitration and the owners adding money into the players retirement fund.  Since teams played an uneven number of games, the fact that the Detroit Tigers played 1 game more than the Boston Red Sox meant the Tigers won the American League East Division Championship by virtue of an 86-70 record vs. Boston’s 85-70 record.  The reason those cancelled games were not rescheduled and made up, even though such scheduling was entirely feasible, was that the owners did not want to have to pay their players for those missed games.

4. Major League Umpires’ Mass Resignation, 1999.

The last baseball entry on our list it the labor dispute of 1999 in which major league umpires were not allowed to go on strike, so instead, they expressed their displeasure by staging a mass resignation.  So, 57 of the 68 men in blue resigned (66 of them members of the Major League Umpires Association, known as the MLUA) instead of going on strike.  Not at all impressed, the National League and American League swiftly hired replacement umpires and accepted the resignations of 22 of the disgruntled umps.  The attempt to force Major League Baseball to back off the effort to combine the authority over the umpires with the Commissioner of Baseball instead of the separate leagues and to stop new rules making it easier for baseball to get rid of umpires failed entirely, with 22 of the dissatisfied umpires that had resigned not getting their jobs back until 2002 when lawsuits resulted in some jobs regained and others being allowed to retire or receive severance pay.  Other issues included a beef with the MLPA (Major League Players Association) that had been publishing ratings of umpires and an effort by MLB to control the strike zone enforced by the umps.  Pay of umpires that had worked exhibition games and disciplinary action against umpires were also issues.  Since its certification to represent the umpires in 1969, the MULA had staged previous strikes and had been locked out before, but the 1999 incident was the most glaringly public event in labor history between Major League Baseball and the umpires.  MULA was decertified and a new umpires’ union took its place.  We wait for the fireworks to occur when umps are totally replaced by cameras and computers!

5. NFL Players Strike, 1982.

From September 21 to November 16, 1982, no NFL games were played due to the striking players demanding that player salaries be tied to NFL revenues, specifically that 55% of such revenue should be translated into player salaries.  The strike resulted in the 1982 season being shortened to only 9 games and the playoff cast expanded from 8 teams to 16 teams.  With no NFL games to watch, television audiences were “treated” to minor college games and an attempt to showcase Canadian Football League games.  The 4 CFL games that were shown turned out to be lopsided slaughters and viewers stayed away in droves.  The weak attempt to hold 2 All Pro Games during the strike resulted in few players agreeing to play and empty stadiums.  Some of the fallout of the strike was player dissatisfaction with the union even though the players had won several concessions, including increased pay, severance pay, increased playoff pay, and the union having access to every player contract.  Previous labor actions by NFL players did not result in games being cancelled.

6. NFL Players Strike, 1987.

The 1987 strike against the NFL by players resulted in 1 game being cancelled (that is, the entire slate of games for 1 day) and 3 games being staged using NFL players that refused to strike and replacement players, which in turn resulted in a travesty of sub-standard performance on the field.  Some of the big-name players that played in spite of the strike included Joe Montana, Doug Flutie, Steve Largent, Mark Gastineau and Randy White.  Other players were those that had been cut from rosters before the season or were veterans of the USFL which was by this time defunct, and even players from the CFL Montreal Alouettes that had gone out of business only a few months before the strike.  The main point of contention this time was the way the NFL handled player free agency, and in this particular case the players were the clear winners in the dispute.

 7. NFL Referee Lockout, 2012.

When it comes to making a travesty of NFL football games, using replacement referees is just as bad as using replacement players.  The NFL owners locked out the referees due to labor disagreements in June of 2012, and bumbling replacement referees officiated the first 3 games of the 2012 season, much to the chagrin of NFL fans!  The 2012 lockout of referees actually had its roots in the 2011 lockout of all employees by NFL owners in the Spring and early Summer of 2011 when the referees intended to reopen contract negotiations but could not due to the lockout.  Under the weight of crushing criticism of the league and of the replacement referees by football fans, the referees and the league finally achieved a new contract agreement with the help of the US Federal Government.  The new agreement is for 8 years, so we will see what happens in 2020!

8. NHL Lockout, 2004-2005.

The massive consequence of this labor strike resulted in the cancellation of the entire 2004-2005 National Hockey League season and culminated in the first time since 1919 The Stanley Cup was not awarded.  This strike was the first time in history a major sports league had its entire season cancelled, and only the second time a major sport had its post-season playoffs cancelled (after the 1994 MLB season ending strike).  The strike lasted over 10 months and cost 1230 games that went un-played.  The rich team owners certainly lost a lot of money, but perhaps being rich in the first places means they could afford such a protracted labor stoppage.  The star players might be able to make due without a salary for a year, especially if they had other endorsement revenue, but marginal players and all the support employees had to suffer terribly going without work for an entire season!  The NHL wanted to impose a revenue-based salary structure and claimed the NHL already paid players a whopping 76% of league revenue, a figure far higher than in other major sports.  The players expressed dissatisfaction with young, unproven new players getting enormous contracts.  The league claimed most teams had been losing money, and several teams actually declared bankruptcy.  Irate fans overwhelmingly blamed the players for the strike, with 52% of Canadians blaming the players and only 21% of Canadians blaming the team owners.  An odd fallout of the lost season meant there was no finishing order on which to base the next draft of amateur players.  Instead, a lottery was conducted by which teams drew draft precedence.  Another fallout of the strike was the NHL Players Association Executive Director lost his job.  The strike did result in improved television revenue sharing and increased profitability by NHL teams.  The group that actually controls the Stanley Cup on behalf of Lord Stanley, who had donated the Cup as an award to the top amateur hockey team in Canada (given to the NHL Champion since 1926) nearly took the big prize away from the NHL over the contentious labor dispute.

9. NBA Lockout, 1998-1999.

The 1998-1999 NBA Lockout was the third time the big league basketball players and fans had been denied the opportunity to transfer vast sums of money from the adoring public to the rich people that own the NBA teams.  (There would be a fourth lockout as well.)  The difference with this particular work stoppage was the loss of more than half of the 1998-1999 NBA season, a season shortened by 32 games to only 50 games and the All Star Game being cancelled as well.  Lasting from July or 1998 to January of 1999, the main points of contention were the owners wanting to restructure the salary cap plan and to add limits on individual player salaries.  The players opposed these ideas and wanted an increase in the minimum player salary.  Fans were unimpressed with both sides in the dispute and the media was critical of both sides as well.  The worst part of fan reaction for both the players and the owners was the lukewarm emotion of the fans that did not seem to care all that much about the NBA season being delayed so long.  With fan alienation as strong incentive, the players and owners reached an accord and quickly got the season started in January of 1999, but ticket sales and television viewership both suffered post lockout.  Polls showed that 29% of NBA fans experienced a diminished enthusiasm for the game.  Oddly enough, NBA fans favored the players’ side of the issue while the general public sided with the owners.  The only NBA work stoppage since the 1998-1999 Lockout occurred in 2011 when players were locked out for 5 months and the 2011-2012 NBA season was shortened by 16 games.  The 2011 version of the lockout lasted even longer than the 1998-1999 version, 8 months vs. 6 months, though it affected fewer games.

10. NBA Referee Lockout, 1995.

The 1995 lockout of NBA referees followed a labor dispute lockout with the players, but this time the issues were not resolved between the referees and the owners in time for the start of the season.  The league scrambled to find replacement referees from the ranks of the CBA (Continental Basketball League, a minor league professional basketball organization) and other professional and amateur leagues.  The NBA found that rounding up suitable referees was harder than it appeared at first, and games were limited to only 2 referees per game instead of the normal 3.  The locked out referees warned that their absence would result in more fights and less control of games, and that fans and teams would both be unhappy with blown calls.  The referees were right, with fans and players both moaning about the state of refereeing in the NBA.  When the real refs returned, fans and players both sighed with relief.  The NBA learned from this experience and has kept an eye on potential replacement referees should the need arise in the future.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

O’Leary, Leanne. Employment and Labour Relations Law in the Premier League, NBA and International Rugby Union. T.M.C. Asser Press, 2017.

Schiavone, Michael. Sports and Labor in the United States. SUNY Pres, 2016.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.