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MLB Players Association makes a push to unionize the minor leagues

“This organizing campaign is an investment in the future of our game and our Player fraternity,” said MLBPA executive director Tony Clark

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The Major League Baseball Players Association is making a formal push to unionize the minor leagues, striking while the iron is hot in an attempt to give the most underpaid players in the sport, at the very least, a seat at the negotiating table in determining their own working conditions.

The move comes after over two years of minor leaguers speaking out, and in the process have earned — sometimes painstakingly slowly — better, and free housing, the elimination of paying clubhouse dues, and slightly higher salaries.

Minimum minor league salaries are still quite low, from $400 per week in complex leagues to $700 weekly in Triple-A, buoyed by the 2018 Save America’s Pastime Act passed by Congress, which codified minor league players getting paid less than a living wage.

Players don’t get paid during spring training, though that could eventually change, too. In July, MLB reached a settlement in an eight-year-old class action lawsuit, agreeing to pay $185 million as restitution for minimum-wage and overtime violations. Garrett Broshuis, a former minor league pitcher, was an attorney for the plaintiffs in that case.

The progress over the last few years have come from the willingness of current players to speak out, shining a light on their working conditions, along with the work of people like Broshuis as well as the group Advocates for Minor Leaguers, that has been instrumental in amplifying players voices.

As part of the formal unionization push, the nonprofit group Advocates for Minor Leaguers has suspended its operations, with each member of its staff now hired by the MLBPA.

“This generation of Minor League Players has demonstrated an unprecedented ability to address workplace issues with a collective voice,” said Advocates for Minor Leaguers executive director Harry Marino in a statement on Monday. “Joining with the most powerful union in professional sports assures that this voice is heard where it matters most – at the bargaining table.”

The timing for this move feels right, for a few reasons. In addition to the momentum of the last few years, thanks to a collective push from current minor leaguers, there’s time and some protection for minor leaguers to unionize now. The 120 current minor league affiliates, from Low-A to Triple-A, have signed professional development license agreements through 2030. Any attempt by MLB to cut more minor league teams, like the 42 teams that were culled after the 2020 season, can’t happen for a while.

There’s also pressure on MLB at the moment, with Congress at least going through the motions of threatening to strip the league’s antitrust exemption, which allows MLB to impose the working conditions for minor leaguers.

Marino, then with Advocates for Minor Leaguers, in July called for Congress to extend the Curt Flood Act — which suspends MLB’s antitrust exemption in dealings with major leaguers, who are unionized — to minor leaguers. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred in response sent a 17-page letter to Congress that contradicted himself.

During collective bargaining negotiations in February, MLB wanted the right to further limit the number of players on minor league reserve lists, a further sign of trying to cut minor leaguers. But the MLBPA balked.

The Players Association has not always looked out for minor leaguers. During 2020 discussions to restart the season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the MLBPA agreed to let MLB reduce the draft size to five rounds that year, down from 40, and down to 20 rounds going forward.

The 2012 CBA included the draft slotting system we see now, and the 2017 CBA brought a hard cap on international amateur free agents. Both were ways for teams to reduce costs, at the expense of players who were not yet in the union.

After two years of acrimonious fighting on the major league side, and with it a CBA that lasts through 2026, the MLBPA has now moved its focus to minor leaguers.

“Minor Leaguers represent our game’s future and deserve wages and working conditions that befit elite athletes who entertain millions of baseball fans nationwide. They’re an important part of our fraternity and we want to help them achieve their goals both on and off the field,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said in a statement. “This organizing campaign is an investment in the future of our game and our Player fraternity.”

More reading

As part of the unionization push, the MLBPA sent information to all minor leaguers about how signing union cards is a first step in the process, plus a video from Clark and former players Danys Báez, Francisco Cordero, Chris Iannetta, Andrew Miller and Chris Singleton. Evan Drellich at The Athletic has more.

Clark told ESPN, “The last couple years has been a buildup of players offering their voices and their concerns, with Advocates for Minor Leaguers continuing to echo and aggregate those voices in a way that have gotten us to this point.”

From Ronald Blum at the Associated Press: “Signed cards from 30% of the estimated 5,000 to 6,000 minor leaguers in the bargaining unit would allow the union to file a petition to the National Labor Relations Board asking for an union authorization election. MLB also could voluntarily recognize the union representing the bargaining unit, a process that typically can occur if a majority of the unit signs cards.”

“This is the culmination of years of agitation and advocacy by minor leaguers, who are paid a pittance, to achieve better compensation and benefits for their services,” wrote Hannah Keyser at Yahoo Sports.

Bill Shakin at the Los Angeles Times says, “Under Manfred, the owners have improved minor league wages and working conditions, but reluctantly, and not without external pressure. That track record indicates the owners might be better off working with the union here, rather than fighting the union and trying to force a vote.”

Labor attorney Eugene Freedman has a Twitter thread explaining some of the nuts and bolts of how minor league unionization would work.

Marc Normandin at his newsletter on this necessary step for minor leaguers: “The players have already fought and won together without a union, and have come to the realization that they can’t fully achieve their goals without a seat at the table: MLB can hand them scraps and hope that satisfies the players’ hunger so that they can be left alone to gorge in peace, and that’s the best that can be hoped for without the legal powers and rights that a union would give these players.”