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Sherman tanks press conference

Tanks are notoriously hard to stop, and so seems the owner’s focus on a new stadium

Kansas City Royals major owners group shareholder John Sherman watches the first half of basketball game between the Kansas Jayhawks and Oklahoma Sooners at Allen Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Tank is an interesting word. As a noun, the word can be used both to describe a large container for liquids or a motorized machine of death. A quick Google search suggests that the latter definition arose because while the English were designing those machines they attempted to disguise it from prying eyes by pretending they were manufacturing the devices that conform to the former. A bit of deception that no doubt improved their odds of completing their task successfully.

In video game lingo, the word tank takes on an additional meaning. A tank is a role in many multiplayer games where the player will attempt to draw the enemies’ attention and rely upon their superior armor to keep them alive while their teammates, hopefully unburdened by threats of their own, will attempt to complete the team’s goal. The term is no doubt derived from the aforementioned death machines.

In more general slang, tank can be a verb that means to completely fail at a task. This definition apparently comes from boxing which stole it from tennis which used it to compare to swimming. Swimming pools used to also be known as tanks, because they’re large containers for liquid. One thing you can do with a swimming pool is dive. Tennis players could “tank” a set, aka take a dive and lose it, in order to rest up for the remainder of the match. Similarly, boxers could tank a match in order to fix the betting.

All three definitions came to mind as I replayed John Sherman’s press conference.

  1. John Sherman is as determined as any armored vehicle to keep pushing ahead towards his goal - the new stadium in downtown Kansas City.
  2. He drew a lot of fire from unhappy fans over the lack of definitive promises to stay at Kauffman or immediately improve the team, much like a video game tank.
  3. Pretty much everything John Sherman attempted to communicate during the press conference fell on deaf ears or otherwise lacked the ring of authenticity.

First, the state of the on-field product

During the general outcry on social media about John Sherman’s press conference, many writers who cover the Royals asked what we had expected. Maybe people expected he’d fire JJ Picollo and Matt Quatraro. I don’t know. What I do know, is that the press conference went largely how I expected but that doesn’t mean I’m not frustrated with this stuff and I know I’m not alone in either of those things.

These press conferences are largely useless fluff. A team owner is almost never going to say anything too controversial or too pointed because they are either too smart or surround themselves with people smart enough to help them avoid the trouble such statements would bring. But that doesn’t mean we should just blandly accept it simply because that’s how it’s always been. If you’re upset because he didn’t say more, that’s an entirely reasonable position to take even if there was never much of a chance it would happen.

Another thing a lot of other people who write about the Royals said is that they were comforted by the fact that he acknowledged the team is really bad. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills over here because that’s a simple reality. If he insisted the team was good or even better than they looked, he’d have come off like an idiot. I don’t think John Sherman is an idiot. Additionally, it’s not like this is a new thing; he said in 2022 that the team wasn’t as good as they had expected, and look at how things have progressed from there.

A quick rejoinder on the stadium push

The Kansas City Star’s Sam McDowell has already written an excellent piece responding to John Sherman’s remarks about the stadium, so I don’t want to spend too much time here. That said, I did find a couple of things I wanted to mention.

John Sherman says no one is waiting on the Royals. The thing is, that can’t possibly be true because the team still hasn’t picked a site. How can anyone move forward with anything until that happens? He says the team is pushing for Jackson County to extend its sales tax that provides the funds used to maintain both stadiums at the Truman Sports Complex, but he hasn’t even committed to building in Jackson County as of yet.

When pressed on why the owners couldn’t or shouldn’t simply pay for the entire project themselves, Sherman first remarked that stadiums should be a joint effort without specifying why. He continued by noting that the stadium the team currently occupies was built entirely with public funds. Finally, he said that building a new stadium and ensuring it has a long lease for whoever owns the team next is a high priority for him. You’ll note that none of those statements remotely address the question that was posed to him.

Ultimately, this is just negotiating goofiness. The Royals are trying to pressure Jackson County into giving them more favorable terms by threatening to go somewhere else and attaching the Kansas City Chiefs’ name to their side. Jackson County politicians, for their part, are refusing to simply roll over. It’s unclear as of now whether they’re doing that because they simply want more from the Royals, because the idea is remarkably unpopular among certain segments of the local population, or because - as does Frank White - they have a grudge against the team.

Sherman also reiterated his belief that when the Royals build their new stadium it will bring many community benefits in terms of jobs and money to the location they choose. Despite the fact that multiple independent studies show that no stadium has ever done that before. He also said that any money the ownership team earned from the new development would go back into the team because “This is not a business where you distribute cash to the investors. This is a business where you take your excess cash flow and you put it back on the field.” Of course, the team is far from spending all of its current income. Where is that money going and why should we believe that, if they had more of it, it wouldn’t disappear just as quietly?

Raining on Sherman’s labor parade

The final question that was asked during the hour Sherman met with the media involved the reports of bad faith negotiations with the in-stadium workers’ union, the lack of a community benefits agreement negotiation around the new stadium development, and the accusations that the team was failing in its mission with the Urban Youth Academy. (Read more on the background of these topics here.)

Sherman remarked that a community benefits agreement was premature. He might even have had a point, as the team hasn’t officially decided which community they even want their new stadium to be built in. He further said that they are looking into what is happening at the Urban Youth Academy and that they know they need to “get that right.” A generic statement that admits nothing and promises little, but at least it’s vaguely in the right direction.

On the state of the labor negotiations, he had quite a bit more to say. He insisted repeatedly that the Royals have been negotiating in good faith and touted the fact that they are “settled on wages.” I found myself wishing someone had gone back to the labor union in the same way that McDowell went back to those politicians about the stadium politics. Then I realized, I could be that someone.

So I reached out to the Service Employees International Union Local 1 (SEIU Local 1), the union that represents not only the Royals’ stadium workers but the Chiefs’ stadium employees as well as school and janitorial employees around Missouri and in other states. Fortunately, a spokesperson for SEIU Local 1 reached out to me promptly after receiving my queries with a few enlightening answers. First, I asked if they could confirm or deny that an agreement on wages had been reached:

On June 20th, 2023, the Kansas City Royals, through their outside counsel, Joel Abrahamson from Stinson Law Firm, delivered a “last, best, and final” offer on wages for Event Services workers. This “last, best, and final” wage offer, which still contains less-than-inflation increases that effectively serve as pay cuts, is a take-it-or-leave-it proposal which, if rejected, would halt negotiations for at least six months, leaving those working people - and their livelihoods - in limbo. In response, the Event Services negotiations team, which is comprised of working people from each department, did tentatively agree to take this wage offer to the general membership for a vote, in hopes of achieving a finalized contract before the hottest part of the season.

In doing research for this article I discovered that in labor negotiations the term “settled” does not mean what most of us would assume. It describes the situation above, where the union agrees to take it to its members for a vote but does not yet mean that anything has been completely agreed to. Sherman failed to mention any of the context provided by the SEIU Local 1, either, about the last, best, and final offer or the fact that the offer would mean that the Royals’ employees would take an effective pay cut. I doubt that Sherman intended to deceive anyone; it’s entirely possible that he’s so used to the terms and definitions in play that he forgot that most of us would assume he meant something entirely different. But the results remain.

Also, I looked up Mr. Abrahamson and the Stinson law firm and discovered that their top “capability” in the realm of labor law is “preventing unions,” so it is no wonder these negotiations aren’t as friendly as we might like.

I further asked if there were any other changes about the situation that the union could confirm, specifically about the water situation and the state of negotiations:

The Grounds & Tarp Crews negotiations team, which is comprised of members from each crew, are still attempting to come to agreement on the final topic - healthcare benefits for themselves and their families. Despite this negotiations team agreeing to every concession demanded by the Kansas City Royals, the Kansas City Royals have still refused to sign that agreement. For reference, the health insurance plan year currently being negotiated begins on July 1st, 2023.

SEIU Local 1 filed federal charges which list multiple labor violations, including “bad faith bargaining”, on May 22nd, 2023. Since then, Local 1 members at Kauffman Stadium have continued to report that the Kansas City Royals are operating in the same manner, despite the active NLRB investigation of those federal charges. SEIU Local 1 trusts the NLRB to investigate these charges fairly and thoroughly, and we are confident in the outcome of that investigation.

SEIU Local 1 members did win a new agreement on worker health and safety which would fully resolve the long-standing water concerns, but that agreement will not take effect until after the contract has been finalized. While it is common for employers to agree to make safety changes immediately, the Kansas City Royals have not agreed to preemptively begin any of those agreed changes.

If you’re curious, you can find the NLRB case description here.

That last sentence also stood out to me. If it’s common for employers to make safety changes immediately, it seems exceptionally petty for the Royals to refuse to do so but frustratingly in line with their other alleged poor behavior during these labor negotiations. Also, in case you’re wondering what the water situation looks like, my research dug up this disturbing release from SEIU Local 1’s website from April. Of particular concern to me was the accusation that the Royals are using a hose to fill water tanks.

This is absolutely not a situation that should be allowed to continue indefinitely when they’ve already agreed to a change and standard practice is to immediately implement such a change. A cynical person might even wonder if they refused to begin the changes early in an attempt to coerce the union into agreeing to other, less favorable terms in other areas so that everyone can have access to clean, cold water again.

I also asked if there was anything else they might want to communicate and they added this:

A review of press releases from the Missouri Division of SEIU Local 1 would show a strong history of positive statements describing successful and respectful negotiations with the Kansas City Chiefs, Kansas City Public Schools, major janitorial companies, and many other employers throughout the Kansas City community. You can find those press releases here: Local 1 members are committed to strong and respectful labor partnerships, and do not lightly make negative public statements.

Working people deserve fair pay and benefits, and respect, and Local 1 members are proud to stand together to achieve this for themselves and other working families.

In case you missed it, Sherman said during the press conference that it is a common tactic during labor negotiations for the labor side to try to negotiate through the media with negative remarks, so this was a response to that. Unfortunately, when I reviewed that link the results only went back to October of last year. Apparently, they had a website overhaul and many of their previous press releases are no longer available.

That said, the negative releases about the situation with the Royals are the only such announcements about businesses among those still available. As indicated, the other releases are largely about successful negotiations with a couple of statements about political candidates thrown in for good measure. Regardless, Sherman isn’t wrong that some labor unions will negotiate that way. But it does seem a bit disingenuous to accuse SEIU Local 1 of doing so unless he has evidence of it that I can’t find.

In addition to that attempted shot, Sherman also fired off about the union’s decision to tie announcing their failures to the Royals’ desire to build a new stadium. SEIU Local 1 didn’t say anything about that in their response to me, but Sherman seemed particularly defensive while declaring that the labor negotiations have nothing to do with the new stadium. It seems to me, however, that it is vitally important to know the kind of business it is for which citizens are being asked to fund a new money factory. Personally, I’d be less inclined to vote yes on such a measure knowing that said business couldn’t be bothered to ensure or allow their employees to have adequate access to clean water, as alleged by the employees of that company.

None of this paints the Royals or Sherman himself in a positive light. I can’t conceive that the Royals' majority owner invited the media out to the stadium just to lie about anything and everything, so I can only speculate as to what is actually happening in his mind or behind closed doors. What I can say for certain is that there is a disturbing pattern of dissonance between the things he said and perceptible reality. From what most people believe to be pretense in his assertion that they might choose to move to Clay County to his doubling down about how a new stadium will benefit the community despite a lack of evidence to the insistence that his team is negotiating fairly with the SEIU Local 1 and treating their employees well despite credible accusations to the contrary. Once again, there is a lot of smoke pouring out of Kauffman Stadium, and I don’t think it’s because of the Canadian forest fires.