This July 16, 1981, file photo shows baseball union leader Marvin Miller speaking to reporters after rejecting a proposal to end a baseball strike, in New York. (AP Photo/Howard, File)
Marvin Miller, the legendary leader of the Major League Baseball Player’s Association, passed away today at the age of 95. Mr. Miller never played the game, but he may have had more influence on baseball than anyone else in this half of the century. As executive director of the Players Association from 1966–82, he brought a world of experience garnered in the tough steelworkers’ union to bear on baseball labor relations, and his knowledge, organizational ability, and resolve completely overmatched the owners and their representatives. During his tenure the average players salary increased from $19,000 to over $240,000. Today the Baseball Players Union is acknowledged as one of the strongest labor organizations in the United States. Below is my 2004 interview with Mr. Miller, and at 87, you will see that he still had the fire.
Dave Zirin: Who or what shaped your thinking as a young man?
Marvin Miller: Well, I guess a big part of what shaped me was that I entered high school in February of 1929. Several months later, boom, we have the Great Depression. All through the early 1930s my father, who was a retail store salesman, saw the businesses that employed him went downhill and all through the Depression, my father got more and more anxious and concerned and I was old enough to be aware of all of that.
How did the Depression affect where you grew up?
I grew up in New York City and in that period, you couldn’t help but observe the breadlines, the increase of the number of people begging in the streets, the people selling apples. The signs of economic hardship were easy to see. I am reminded of a question I was asked a couple of years ago. I was speaking to a group of young black students in New York talking about the Depression, breadlines and so on and one of the kids asked me if there were white people also on the breadlines and selling apples in the streets. Of course! In fact, most of them! In the New York of the early 1930s there was a black population, but it was largely ghettoized in Harlem and unless you went to Harlem, you didn’t see black people on the breadlines.
How did the Depression move you toward trade union politics?
My father who had never been in a union in his life, became active. He was a member in the wholesale clothing workers’ union in lower Manhattan and I have a very early memory of going to a store where he was working and finding him on a picket line. Also my mother was a teacher in New York City Public Schools and she became one of the early members of the city’s teachers’ union. As the thirties progressed and the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] and industrial unions formed, everybody was aware of the ferment of the labor movement. All of these were influences.
When did you personally become involved?
I graduated college in 1938, and in that period, a good part of the country was seemingly coming out of the Depression. But New York City was not. New York just kept dropping until April 1940 after the rest of the country was moving. I can recall wondering if I was ever going to get a job. Unlike some friends and neighbors, my father did not own a business. I was in different straits. I had no affluent uncles. In those days when you looked for a job you would go to employment agencies and the situation was so bad you had to connive just to get an application filled out and handed in. Eventually I got some meaningless jobs here and there—a drugstore, a small wholesale gift outfit, working for shipping broker a customs broker down at the foot of Manhattan.… I had other meaningless jobs, and I kept taking civil service examinations. I finally got appointed, working with relief populations which was an eye-opener, and an economist for the war production board, and eventually I moved to a brand new agency called the War Relations Board, and this was charged with a new function of hearing virtually every labor management pursuit. This is how it formed. The labor movement had been asked to make a no-strike pledge for the duration of the war and the Chamber of Commerce were asked to, in good faith, make a no-lock-out pledge. The labor movement said OK, but we are still organizing and there are conditions all over that haven’t changed since the Depression, and how are we going to solve disputes? And FDR created by executive order the War Labor Board, I was a hearing officer. With the War Labor Board, I dealt with arbitrating steel, auto, women in the workplace, and sometime later I found a job first with the IAM [the International Association of Machinists] and worked with them and I also had a short stint with the UAW [United Auto Workers]an then the steel workers starting in 1950 and I became chief economist and assistant to the president and I was with them until 1966