Minor league baseball players could be the next group of workers to unionize

The push to unionize Minor League Baseball is officially underway. Last week, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) announced that it had issued clearance cards to minor league players.

If at least 30% sign the cards, a union election will take place. And if 50 percent in this vote opt for a union, five thousand minor league players will join the ranks of organized labor – a historic development in American professional sports.

News of the labor campaign came just weeks after Major League Baseball (MLB) agreed to pay $185 million to settle a class action lawsuit brought by minor leaguers in 2014. Players were seeking lost wages and hours overtime for the many hours they had spent in spring training, extended spring training and instructional league.

While the average MLB team is valued at nearly $2 billion, owners pay minor leaguers an average of just $400 per week at the rookie level, $500 per week at Single-A, $600 per week at Double- A and $700 per week in Triple. -A.

“Major League baseball players were the first American athletes to unionize, which in 1968 led to the first collective bargaining contract in professional sports,” said author and baseball historian Peter Dreier. . Jacobin. “For years the Major League Baseball Players Association ignored the minor leagues. But Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and baseball’s billionaire owners miscalculated.

Dreier identifies several factors that contributed to the problem. In 2018, Congress passed a law called Save America’s Pastime Act exempting the league from minimum wage laws, and the following year Manfred announced he was eliminating forty-two minor league teams. Then, in recent contract negotiations, baseball owners tried to force the players’ union, almost calling a strike.

“It’s part of a larger trend — an upsurge in unionization across the country,” Dreier said. “According to a new Gallup poll, 71% of Americans support unions – the highest level since 1965. The minor leaguers are not exempt from the frustrations felt by many workers – especially young workers.”

Public awareness of the plight of the minor leaguers has increased in recent years through the work of Advocates for Minor Leaguers (AML), an organization made up of former minor league players. “Major League Baseball has no one to hold them accountable for their treatment of minor leaguers – and they will continue to profit from it until these players are represented,” said Ty Kelly, founding member and former player of the AML. Jacobin shortly after the band launched in 2020.

Baseball’s labor practices have also come under increasing political scrutiny. In June, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Advocates for Minors Leaguers executive director Harry Marino requesting information about MLB’s antitrust exemption and its impact on minor league players. The letter was released shortly after the Justice Department filed its own statement of interest regarding minor leagues and MLB’s antitrust exclusion.

The greatest minor league champion in Congress is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. When Manfred announced he was scrapping dozens of minor league teams, Sanders sent him a letter denouncing the decision and demanding better terms for the players. “It seems like the multimillionaire and billionaire owners of Major League Baseball would rather throw them out on the street, no matter how many fans, communities and workers are hurt in the process,” Sanders wrote. “If that’s the type of attitude Major League Baseball and its owners have, then I think it’s time for Congress and the executive branch to seriously rethink and reconsider all the benefits it has given to the league, including…its antitrust exemption. Pay minor league players a living wage and make it easier for them to join a union.

Sanders, no doubt aware of the importance MLB places on its antitrust exemption and likely eager to up the ante, introduced legislation to eradicate the exemption from the league altogether.

The MLBPA’s relationship with minor league players has not always been friendly. The gains for young prospects can be seen as threatening for veterans already in the majors. As recently as 2007, the union passed contract language that barred minor leaguers from operating freely for an additional year. In 2012, former MLBPA attorney Gene Orza offered this stark assessment of minor leaguers: “We don’t represent them and have no obligation.”

But that aloof attitude has changed lately, with the union and minor leaguers joining hands. “This is a multi-year commitment that has grown more formally over the past several years,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said in an interview with Sports Business Journalnoting that there was a lot of diligence and consideration that goes unnoticed behind the scenes.

In an enlightening article, baseball flyersMarc Normandin maintains that the union dynamic strikes at the right time. “Time is . . . right because now is not the right time for the league itself to retaliate as it might have wished,” wrote Normandin. they have – that is, the size they have after the massive disaffiliations of 2021 reduced the minors from dozens of teams – until the current professional baseball agreement expires in 2030 .”

“That’s not to say MLB lacks the weapons to fight back, but they need to be a lot more careful and sneaky, a lot less bludgeoned, than they would have been had this happened a few years ago or a few years later,” he continues.

According to Clark, the union has seen a “tremendous response” to the union campaign, and he is “confident,” reports the AP, that they will cross the 30% threshold “in the days and weeks ahead.” If more than 50% of players sign clearance cards, MLB could voluntarily recognize the minor leaguers’ bargaining unit (which would form a separate cohort with the larger MLBPA). Chances are, however, that the league is looking to extend the process as long as possible.

In other words, the fight to organize minor leaguers has only just begun – but not too soon.

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