This past Friday, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred made the somewhat unexpected declaration that the league and its owners would recognize a new minor league union voluntarily, rather than force minor leaguers to conduct a formal vote and prompt intervention from the National Labor Relations Board. By Monday, the owners and players association had a card-checking agreement in place, one by which both sides decided that if the neutral arbiter found minor leaguers were largely in favor of unionizing, MLB would recognize that union.
“Major League Baseball has a long history of bargaining in good faith with unions, including those representing minor and major league umpires, and major league players,” MLB said in a statement. “We respect the right of workers to decide for themselves whether to unionize.
“Based on the authorization cards gathered, MLB has voluntarily and promptly recognized the MLBPA as the representatives of minor league players. We are hopeful that a timely and fair collective bargaining agreement will be reached that is good for the game, minor league players and our fans.”
What comes next remains to be seen, but the obvious consequence of the sudden unionization effort will be collective bargaining. To this point, only major league players, who for 50 years have been represented by the vaunted MLBPA, have had the chance to negotiate with their employers for higher salaries or more tolerable working conditions. All of that is likely to change this offseason, as MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark said last week that he hopes the sides will have their first agreement in place by spring training. Minor league players seem likely to negotiate for higher salaries, among many other priorities, in those talks. Whether those salaries will grow sparingly or exponentially remains unclear.
Tony Clark: ‘Right players, right time, right climate’ for minor league union
Clark’s timeline may be optimistic. While often hostile negotiations between the union and team owners seize the spotlight every five years, MLB collectively bargains with multiple unions to keep the sport running. Major League umpires and minor league umpires also negotiate such deals. But owners are notoriously uncomfortable parting with more money for the sake of player priorities at the major league level, let alone in the minors, where expenses have always been more controlled.
“This historic achievement required the right group of players at the right moment to succeed,” Clark said in a statement. “Minor leaguers have courageously seized that moment, and we look forward to improving their terms and conditions of employment through the process of good faith collective bargaining.”
Given that minor leaguers played at the whims of major league owners without a union since the 1930s, the idea that unionization happened quickly might be in the eye of the beholder. But since minor league players lost their season — and therefore, their paychecks — to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, their oft-overlooked working conditions slowly worked their way into the mainstream sports consciousness in a way that forced quick and substantial change, even before the push to unionize.
Thanks in large part to the consistent efforts of advocacy groups, low salaries, travel tribulations, housing challenges and other concerns facing minor leaguers emerged as mainstream issues in a way they had not before.
When MLB staged a complete takeover of the minor league system ahead of the 2021 season, the owners’ swift elimination of 40 affiliated teams overshadowed the league’s efforts to implement some modernization. During its first year of full control of the minor leagues, MLB raised player salaries by 36 to 72 percent, though even those raises left most players making less than minimum wage and paid them nothing in the offseason. Ahead of this season, the league implemented a plan forcing major league teams to provide housing to most minor league players, alleviating one of the greatest economic and logistical stressors players face.
But even as MLB did its best to head off some public pressure with those changes, new pressures emerged from more formal avenues. A lawsuit filed by teams MLB contracted unilaterally and written to entice the Supreme Court threatens the league’s long-standing and long-contested antitrust exemption.
The Department of Justice filed a notice of interest in that case, meaning the questions had also reached the radar of the executive branch. The Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter of inquiry about that exemption to Manfred this summer, suggesting it may soon consider amending that exemption from the legislative side, too; such a move would not have been without precedent. The Curt Flood Act of 1998 legislated that antitrust laws would apply to employment practices of major leaguers.
Fifty years ago, Curt Flood walked away from the Senators. He left baseball forever changed.
By recognizing a minor league union voluntarily and clearing the way for players to bargain for their conditions, MLB may be heading off some of that federal interest in the antitrust exemption that has facilitated key aspects of the league’s operations for decades.
The increased attention on the minor league experience was one reason MLBPA decided to seize the moment and act now. Clark said last week that the process began as early as 2020, when he made contact with the AFL-CIO and built connections with minor leaguers and organizing groups. Recently, the MLBPA’s executive subcommittee voted to support minor league unionization, clearing the way for the distribution of authorization cards, which gauged interest.
Earlier this month, the MLBPA announced it had more than the 30 percent support required by the NLRB, and that it had asked MLB to recognize the union voluntarily. Just weeks later, the union is official, and so is the affiliation of the MLBPA with the AFL-CIO, one of the more prominent labor unions in the country and a powerful organizing force.
People familiar with baseball negotiating wonder how much room minor leaguers will have to raise their salaries through bargaining, particularly since many people in the industry draw a line from the 2021 contraction of the minors to the increased expenses levied on owners by MLB’s new facility, nutrition, housing and pay standards. If players negotiate much higher salaries and more expensive operations, owners could see the increased expenses as a reason to further contract their minor league obligations — though MLB argues its takeover will allow minor league teams to accumulate more large-scale ad revenue and perhaps even peddle television rights that could bring in additional funds.
Whatever the eventual consequences, Wednesday’s news was already monumental: A minor league union once seemed unthinkable because of the pressures involved, and now one has materialized. The way the sport handles its young players will undoubtedly change forever as a result, likely sooner than later.