Minor League Baseball Players May Be the Next Group of Workers to Unionize

When you think of poorly paid workers, minor league baseball players probably aren’t the first group that comes to mind. But minor leaguers suffer paltry compensation — and a drive to unionize them is now officially underway.

The push to unionize Minor League Baseball is officially underway. (Erick W. Rasco / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

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

If at least 30 percent sign the cards, a union election will be held. And if 50 percent in that vote opt for a union, five thousand minor league players will join the ranks of organized labor — a historic development in US professional sports.

The news of the union drive came just weeks after Major League Baseball (MLB) agreed to pay $185 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by minor leaguers in 2014. The players were seeking lost wages and overtime for the many hours they’d spent in spring training, extended spring training, and instructional league.

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

Growing Pressure

“Major League baseball players were the first American athletes to unionize, which, in 1968, led to the first collective bargaining contract in professional sports,” author and baseball historian Peter Dreier told 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 helped bring the issue to a head. In 2018, Congress passed a law called the Save America’s Pastime Act exempting the league from minimum-wage laws, and the following year, Manfred announced that he was eliminating forty-two minor-league teams. Then in recent contract negotiations, the baseball owners tried to strong-arm the players union, nearly triggering a strike.

“This is part of a broader trend — an upsurge of union organizing around the country,” Dreier said. “According to a new Gallup poll, 71 percent of Americans support unions — the highest level since 1965. Minor leaguers aren’t exempt from the frustrations that many workers — especially young workers — are feeling.”

Public awareness of minor leaguers’ plight has grown in recent years thanks to the work of Advocates for Minor Leaguers (AML), an organization comprised 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 take advantage of them until those players have representation,” AML founding member and former player Ty Kelly told Jacobin shortly after the group was launched in 2020.

Baseball’s labor practices have also faced 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 Department of Justice filed its own statement of interest about the minor leagues and MLB’s antitrust carve-out.

Minor leaguers’ biggest champion in Congress is Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. When Manfred announced that he was scrapping scores of minor-league teams, Sanders sent him a letter denouncing the decision and demanding better conditions for players. “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,” wrote Sanders. “If this is the type of attitude that 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 of the benefits it has bestowed to the league including . . . its antitrust exemption. Pay the minor league players a living wage and make it easier for them to join a union.”

Sanders, no doubt aware of how much MLB values its antitrust exemption and likely keen to turn up the pressure, has introduced legislation to eradicate the league’s exemption altogether.

The MLBPA and the Minor Leagues

The MLBPA’s relationship with minor-league players has not always been amicable. Gains for young prospects can be seen as threatening for veterans already in the majors. As recently as 2007, the union adopted contract language that kept minor leaguers out of free agency for an extra year. In 2012, former MLBPA lawyer Gene Orza offered this blunt assessment of minor leaguers: “We don’t represent them and have no obligation.”

But that aloof attitude has changed of late, with the union and minor leaguers joining hands. “It’s been a multiyear engagement that has picked up more formally over the last few years,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said in an interview with Sports Business Journal, noting that there’s been a lot of diligence and consideration that goes unnoticed behind the scenes.”

In an illuminating article, Baseball Prospectus’s Marc Normandin argues that the union drive is striking at the right time. “The time is . . . right because it is the wrong time for the league itself to fight back in the ways it might have wanted to,” writes Normandin. “Contractually, MLB is supposed to keep the minors the size they are — which is to say, the size they are after the mass disaffiliations of 2021 shrunk the minors by dozens of teams — until after the current Professional Baseball Agreement expires in 2030.”

“That’s not to say MLB lacks weapons to fight back, but they have to be a lot more careful and devious, a lot less bludgeon-y, than they would have been had this occurred a couple of years ago or a few years later,” he continues.

According to Clark, the union has seen a “tremendous response” to the union drive, and he’s “confident,” the AP reports, that they’ll pass the 30 percent threshold “in the coming days and weeks.” If more than 50 percent of the players sign authorization cards, the MLB could voluntarily recognize the minor leaguers’ bargaining unit (which would form a separate cohort with the larger MLBPA). There’s a good chance, however, that the league will seek to drag out the process out for as long as possible.

In other words, the fight to organize minor leaguers is just beginning — but not a moment too soon.