Tonight, Major League Baseball (MLB) will hold its ninety-second All-Star Game, with the National and American League teams competing against one another at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
This year has already produced several interesting baseball labor stories, but they probably won’t get mentioned during the broadcast. Here are three to think about while you tune into the game:
Dodger Stadium concession workers almost went on strike.
A little over a week before the All-Star Game, 99 percent of the food and beverage workers at Dodgers Stadium voted to authorize a strike. Almost 1,500 people work in the concession stands, and they’re represented by UNITE HERE Local 11. “They are the backbone of our tourism and sports industry, yet many struggle to stay housed and to make ends meet,” union copresident Susan Minato told Sports Illustrated. “They often live with economic uncertainty because the quality of jobs vary stadium to stadium. No worker should have to continue living like this.”
The Dodgers Stadium concession workers are employed by Levy Restaurants, a Chicago-based company that’s been a subsidiary of Britain’s Compass Group since 2006. Compass’s 2021 revenue totaled over $21 billion. The Dodger Stadium workers make around $12,000 over the course of eighty-one home games.
Last week, the major-league players’ union put out a statement in support of the effort. “The [Major League Baseball Players Association] stands in solidarity with Dodger Stadium concessions workers represented by UNITE HERE Local 11,” it read. “Like thousands of ballpark workers across the country, Local 11’s members are a vital yet underappreciated part of what makes our game great. They deserve to be treated fairly and will continue to have the 1,200 members of the MLBPA behind them.”
The concession workers’ timing was perfect: the upcoming game helped publicize their fight and raise the stakes for the MLB, the Dodgers, and Levy Restaurants. After making “substantial progress” with Levy in contract negotiations, the union called off the strike — a testament to the power that even low-wage workers can wield, especially when they threaten to withhold their labor at strategic moments.
The Dodgers will presumably be in the playoffs this fall. We’ll see if the workers end up having to wield that power again.
MLB agreed to pay $185 million to settle a lawsuit that minor-league players filed against them.
Last week. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Major League Baseball would pay $185 million to settle a federal class-action lawsuit brought by minor-league players. The players were seeking compensation for minimum-wage and overtime violations that they accrued during their minor-league careers.
While some fans might assume that any professional baseball player rakes in tons of money, that’s hardly the case. Most minor leaguers earn between $3,000 and $7,500 over a five-month season, and many take second jobs to make ends meet.
In 2020, MLB announced a pay bump for minor leaguers: the weekly minimum for rookie and short-season players went from $290 to $400, Class A from $290 to $500, Double-A from $350 to $600, and Triple-A from $502 to $700. But that’s still peanuts. In addition, minor-league seasons can be as short as three months, and players are still expected to practice in the off-season, despite not receiving compensation.
The lawsuit, Senne v. MLB, dates all the way back to 2009. Its lead defendant, Aaron Senne, never made it to the major leagues and says the most he received in a season was $7,000. Thousands of former players joined the suit since it was initially filed.
The effort faced challenges from multiple angles as it wound its way through the courts. US Representatives Brett Guthrie (R-KY) and Cheri Bustos (D-IL) introduced a bill called the Save America’s Pastime Act in 2016, which would have permanently exempted minor leaguers from minimum-wage laws. In 2020, MLB tried to get the case dismissed.
The $185 million settlement is a major concession from the MLB bosses and an impressive win for minor-league players. As part of the settlement, MLB will begin allowing teams to pay minor leaguers for playing in spring training and instructional leagues.
Still, minor leaguers are sorely underpaid. And crucially, they don’t have the collective power of a union to push their interests in these fights.
Baseball’s antitrust exemption is being challenged.
The Senne settlement was a huge victory, but it’s important to consider the context. The MLB will tolerate settling such lawsuits if it temporarily fends off a fate it believes to be much more dangerous: the death of baseball’s antitrust exemption.
In 1922, the Supreme Court ruled that MLB’s business didn’t constitute “interstate commerce” and thus didn’t fall under the Sherman Act. This one-hundred-year-old ruling is what enables teams to pay minor-league players less than minimum wage.
In their statement celebrating the Senne settlement, the group Advocates for Minor Leaguers (AML) zeroed in on the exemption. “For decades, Major League Baseball’s thirty team owners have openly conspired to underpay Minor League baseball players. Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the Minor League Conspiracy — which is currently being investigated by Congress — is that players are required to provide between 6 and 9 months of free labor each year. Today’s settlement announcement is an acknowledgment of, and an important first step toward remedying, that injustice.”
The congressional effort that the group referenced is bipartisan. Last month, Senate Judiciary Committee members Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Mike Lee (R-UT) wrote MLB commissioner Rob Manfred a letter seeking information about the antitrust exemption and its potential eradication. They also sent a letter to AML, asking how the exemption has impacted the lives of players.
Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has gone a step further. In March, he introduced the Save American Baseball Act, which would “end the antitrust safe harbor for baseball cartels.” In an interview with Bryant Gumbel on HBO’s Real Sports, Sanders made the case for his proposal, which he expects to be heard soon by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“It would mean that other people would have the opportunity to start different Major League Baseball leagues,” Sanders said. “It would mean that baseball would be spreading to areas that now don’t have it. . . . The major leagues would not be able to do simply what they wanted to do.”
This isn’t the first time Sanders has taken on baseball’s top brass. While on the presidential campaign trail in 2019, the Vermont senator sent a letter to Manfred condemning his decision to eliminate forty-two minor-league teams and demanding that MLB raise players’ wages. “Your proposal to slash the number of minor league teams has nothing to do with what is good for baseball, but it has everything to do with greed,” he wrote. “Instead of paying Minor League Baseball players a living wage, it appears that the multi-millionaire and billionaire owners of Major League Baseball would rather throw them out on the street no matter how many fans, communities and workers get hurt in the process.”
Sanders echoes these concerns in his new bill, accusing Major League Baseball of “causing needless economic pain and suffering.”
“I think there is a growing anger amongst the American people at baseball,” Sanders told Gumbel. “I think . . . the temperature is rising here in Congress to do something about it.”