MATTHEW HARRIS—In an age where collegiate and professional athletes are increasingly taking control of their own legal rights, no story is more relevant and encouraging than the emerging unionization of Minor League Baseball (“MiLB”) players. On September 14, 2022, the MLB formally recognized the Major League Baseball Players Organization (“MLBPA”) as the collective bargaining representative of MiLB players. The unionization process “unfolded at rapid speed,” as it was announced just eight days earlier that more than 50 percent of active minor leaguers had returned signed union authorization cards sent out by the MLBPA indicating support for MLBPA representation. The MLB had the opportunity to refuse recognizing the minor league unionization, which would have led to an election held by the National Labor Relations Board. However, based on the percent return of authorization cards, it became apparent that an election would result in a union.
While the formal process may have been smooth, the grander movement to improve the wages, rights and benefits of MiLB players has been a long and windy road spanning nearly a decade. In recent years, much attention was focused on the issue that while the MLB generates almost $10 billion in revenue annually, the league pays most of its MiLB players at or below the poverty line, despite the MiLB’s vital role as the sole route to the MLB for rising talent. The first and most recent major effort to enhance minor leaguers’ employment rights occurred in 2014, when a group of 43 minor leaguers filed a class action suit against the Office of the Commissioner on the grounds that the league had violated several minimum wage and overtime pay laws established by the Fair Labor Standards Act. The plaintiffs of Senne v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball reached a settlement in late August for $185 million, and the unionization effort followed shortly after. Prior to the settlement, minimum weekly salaries of minor leaguers ranged from $10,000 at the Single-A level to $15,400 annually in Triple-A over the course of the 5-month season. Meanwhile, the poverty line for an individual household in 2021 was a $13,590 annual salary.
While this settlement benefitted minor leaguers, it did not go unnoticed that the reform could only be brought about through litigation, rather than a collective bargaining action brought by MiLB players themselves. This reflected a larger issue—that the conditions of minor leaguers’ employment still rested in the hands of the league, and evidently, Commissioner Rob Manfred’s personal efforts to raise the standards for their wages and benefits were both inadequate and ingenuine. An LA Times reporter described the MLB leadership’s approach to reform minor leaguers’ employment as “reactive rather than proactive,” and recently suggested that attempts by minor league players or their advocates to bring about change has been met with kicking and screaming. Manfred has, on record, rejected the criticisms of minor league compensation and assertions that they should be treated as full-time employees, claiming that they are “seasonal employees” who are “provided with health insurance, housing benefits, pension benefits, meals, and often tuition reimbursement… benefits that are not available to most college-age employees in this country when they enter the workforce.” In his view, minor leaguers with low likelihoods of securing major league contracts are effectively serving as stand-in opponents for legitimate prospects, and will likely be phased out of the minor leagues within a few years. In the meantime, they are free to secure other employment while pursuing their major league fantasy.
The unfortunate reality that the MLB would not voluntarily raise standards to the level that minor leaguers deserve made collective bargaining the sole solution. This notion was only reinforced by recent actions taken by the MLB, including cancelling the 2020 minor league season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and eliminating over 40 MiLB teams, as well as the success enjoyed by major league players in their collective bargaining efforts during the MLB lockout. As MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark wrote in his letter to player agents about minor league unionization, the “offensive” and “cancer[ous]” working conditions and “chronic lack of respect” for minor leaguers exist primarily because the players have never had a seat at the bargaining table. Clark suggested that with increased bargaining power, players can negotiate better salaries and regain their name, image and likeness rights. Upon the news of the MLB’s voluntary recognition, Clark described the unionization as a “historic achievement,” lauding minor league players for “courageously seiz[ing] [the] moment.”
The parties plan to start negotiating the first minor league collective bargaining agreement following the end of the 2022-23 season. While the MLB previously had sole authority over the various technical aspects of the minor leagues, including salary determinations and working conditions, minor leaguers will finally have a voice in these discussions. The prospect of minor leaguers securing the opportunity to negotiate for their own labor rights is a seismic victory for the player empowerment movement and represents a historic transformation of the labor relations of baseball going forward.