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The Long Road To Unionizing Minor League Baseball

The MLBPA has begun representing Minor League Baseball players at a time when most Minor Leaguers make less than $10,000 per year.

Baseball lovers have long romanticized Minor League Baseball. But though fans know the minors for their family-friendly atmosphere, it’s easy to forget how arduous they can actually be.

The minor and major leagues have always had a complicated relationship. Contrary to popular belief, most MLB teams don’t actually own their MiLB clubs. Instead, they have affiliate relationships that enables the players (employed by the Major League organization) to play in the minors.

Minor League team owners are responsible for running the business of the team. When it comes to the baseball decisions — like paying the players — the Major League affiliate calls the shots. Each Major League team is required to have at least one affiliate in each level of the minors. That means there’s over 6,000 minor leaguers vying for the handful of tMLB roster spots that open in a season. Needless to say, most Minor League players never reach The Show.

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While some prospects ink signing bonuses before ever putting on the uniform, most make less than $10,000 per year. For context, the federal poverty line for a single-person household is $12,880 — only slightly less than the starting salary in AAA ($14,000). Until recently, teams were not even required to pay for housing for their minor league players. Keep in mind some players are from other countries and don’t even speak English.

These struggles have never been secret, but like baseball itself, popular media like the movie Bull Durham have romanticized it. Part of the issue is that regardless of the substandard pay and lack of meaningful benefits, for every guy toiling away in the minors, there are tens of thousands of who would jump at the opportunity to get paid anything to play baseball. It’s the allure of the dream.

However, as attitudes around organized labor have shifted in favor of the worker, MLB must now confront an issue it tried to avoid for almost a century.

Not long ago, the Major League Baseball Player’s Association, which is the union that represents all Major League Baseball players and is historically regarded as the strongest labor union in professional sports, announced that it would also admit minor leaguers. Until now, the MLBPA only represented players from when they entered the draft until they signed with a club (i.e. when they entered the minor leagues). At that point, the union’s representation would cease until the player joined the 40-man roster of a Major League club.

Collective bargaining is a zero-sum game. So it hasn’t necessarily been to the MLBPA’s advantage to admit minor league players to the union. Benefits gained on behalf of minor leaguers would likely come at the expense of the union’s core membership, Major Leaguers. But with the backdrop of the changing sociopolitical landscape coupled with the recent contentious labor negotiations and a nine-figure settlement (as well as a little push from Congress), the MLBPA is seizing the moment.

By virtue of baseball’s long-held position in the fabric of American culture, MLB has enjoyed a number of legal exemptions. If you’ve ever shared a beer with a sports law wonk, you’ve likely heard about MLB’s federal antitrust exemption. In a strange accident, the US Supreme Court ruled that MLB was not considered interstate commerce, which effectively immunized them from any legal challenges on the basis of the league being considered a legal monopoly (which it is).

MLB has long recognized that this exemption is tenuous and has tried to preserve it, enabling them to evade legal scrutiny for paying minor leaguers poverty-level wages. To up the chutzpah ante further, MLB lobbied congress in 2018 to pass the “Save America’s Pastime Act.” That effectively provided MLB with a legal exemption to federal minimum wage and overtime laws.

Arguably the biggest catalyst to this moment was when several former minor leaguers filed a class-action lawsuit against MLB that alleged numerous labor law violations. It specifically cited MLB’s failure to pay minor leaguers a minimum wage or overtime pay.

MLB attempted to advance the argument that minor leaguers were effectively seasonal workers or were apprentices similar to blacksmiths. That allowed for them to earn substandard wages in exchange for learning the skills necessary to ply their trade. The lawsuit, which had been working its way through the system since 2014, reached an inflection point in March. That’s when a federal judge in California ruled that MLB was in violation of California’s labor laws. The judge held that minor leaguers were, in fact, year-round employees, and signaled that a much more consequential loss for the league could follow. That prompted the two parties to ink a $185 million settlement in July.

That’s the moment the MLBPA is trying to leverage, advancing the interests of all professional baseball players while bringing them more in line with their counterparts in other pro sports like hockey, where the minimum salary of a minor leaguer is roughly $52,000. That’s a direct result of the NHL Player’s Association collectively bargaining with the NHL.

What Happens Next

As of Wednesday, minor leaguers are officially part of the MLBPA. Now, the plan is for the minor league players to have a sub-bargaining unit that negotiates separately from the unit representing the Major League players, which is likely to promote more efficient bargaining considering the two parties’ priorities will differ. This will represent a true watershed moments in the history of labor relations in professional sports. It’s over a century in the making and not a moment too soon.

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