- Interview by
- Michael Arria
On September 9, Major League Baseball (MLB) announced that it will voluntarily recognize the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) as the bargaining representative for minor league players. The announcement — a landmark win for labor — came just weeks after the union sent out authorization cards to over five thousand minor league players, which a significant majority quickly signed.
While minor league unionization is suddenly moving rapidly, the effort has been a long time coming. Minor leaguers have been playing without a union for over one hundred years, and only over the last few years has the cause gained momentum, with dugout-to-dugout player organizing and elected officials like Bernie Sanders pressuring the MLB to improve working conditions.
Jacobin contributor Michael Arria spoke with Simon Rosenblum-Larson, a former player in the Tampa Bay Rays system and the cofounder of More Than Baseball, an organization involved in the unionization effort, about how minor leaguers won their fight, what collective bargaining will look like going forward, and what other groups of workers can learn from their impressive victory.
Some people might assume that Minor League Baseball players are paid well and that most are destined for lucrative contracts in big leagues. How would you describe the life of an average minor leaguer?
I think the numbers speak for themselves. The average minor leaguer makes less than $12,000 a year, which is below the poverty line for a single person in the United States. Most ballplayers are not signing million-dollar contracts or getting big signing bonuses. Most are trying to scrape by. Only about 10 percent are ever going to make it to the major leagues, and the ones that do often aren’t going to stay in the major leagues. About half are migrant workers.
So you’re talking about a class of workers that are some of the lowest-paid in the United States. You’re talking about a group of young, exploited, underpaid workers. Most of them will not be rich one day.
The average minor leaguer is just like any other worker who is struggling to get by.
You’re the program director for More Than Baseball. Can you explain why the organization was founded and what kind of work you do?
Our organization was founded originally as a support network for minor league players. We’ve helped provide things like emergency financial assistance during the pandemic. We provided over $1.2 million in grants to over thirteen thousand minor league ballplayers. We’ve done financial guidance and professional development. We’ve helped players find off-season jobs.
So we are a support network for players, but long term, we understood that the solution to the problems in minor league baseball were going to happen not through treating the symptoms via programs, but by actually taking collective action. Over the last few years, we’ve developed a large grassroots network of players that we then leveraged with the support of the MLBPA. During this unionization effort, we used our leverage to get players to sign authorization cards and help catapult this effort to success.
So while the MLBPA has built this union in terms of the financial side and in terms of leadership, a lot of the grassroots work happened over the last few years through organizations like ours and organizations like Advocates for Minor Leaguers (AML), which is a rabble-rousing grassroots advocacy group that we’ve worked alongside.
The minor league union would be a collective bargaining unit within the MLBPA, which is a little different from other minor league unions in other US sports. For instance, the developmental leagues for the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League both have their own separate unions. Why did minor leaguers take this approach, rather than trying to create a separate union?
In part it’s because of the MLBPA’s leadership. They were interested in having one consolidated union. The other reason is that in sports like hockey and soccer, those players are employed by the minor league clubs and paid by their minor league teams. In minor league baseball, all the players are paid by the major league club. That means the bargaining is actually happening with Major League Baseball, and that’s the group the MLBPA is used to bargaining with so there’s existing relationships there.
Since it’s all the same employer, it does make a lot of sense to communicate between those two bargaining units. I’m not in the room for these conversations, but from what I understand, there are going to be very separate bargaining processes happening but under the umbrella of the MLBPA.
The MLBPA hasn’t represented minor league players before, so what did you make of the union being behind you during this union drive? And what did you think about Major League Baseball recognizing the union right away?
I’m not surprised about MLBPA’s support because they’ve been supportive behind the scenes for years, but they obviously hadn’t been ready to represent them until recently. The credit there goes to the groundwork that was done over the last couple years that made it seem more possible that minor league players could be part of a major union.
In terms of Major League Baseball recognizing the union, I don’t have a lot of direct information on what happened. I will say the power of the MLBPA should not be understated. It’s one of the strongest unions in sports and one of the strongest unions generally. It’s done a great job representing its own players, so to have them in the corner of minor league baseball players, I don’t think it can be overstated how much fear that put into Major League Baseball. I think they felt like they were going to lose at that point, so they moved into bargaining rather than delay election outcomes or wait on the [National Labor Relations Board].
You had a tweet the other day that read, “If 6,000 minor league ballplayers from all over the world, playing on teams all across the country, and working in one of the most precarious industries you can imagine were able to unionize, so can you.” How do you see this battle fitting into larger labor fights happening throughout the country?
I think it’s an incredibly important question. Minor league players lose their jobs constantly. There’s massive turnover in the sport. There are players who speak different languages and have different political beliefs. It tends to be a conservative sport politically. You are dealing with players who are young and they’re chasing a dream. They’re aspirational workers.
All those things should make it harder to organize them. Minor league baseball should be one of the hardest workplaces to organize in the United States. And we had a successful organizing drive.
We were successful because we had very, very strong grassroots networks of support. We also had internal leadership within organizations. Every clubhouse had players in it that were pro-union and actively working to make sure this union election was going to be successful. Finally, we had the support of the larger labor movement. The MLBPA is affiliated with the AFL-CIO [American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations]. There was a collective strength in unionism that gathered around minor league baseball.
So using it as a case study for other hard-to-organize workplaces makes a lot of sense. It shows the power of what happens when you build a grassroots network. You develop the support of major unions, and then you work quickly to conduct an effective campaign.
One interesting comparison is between our efforts and those of graduate student unions. In both situations you have aspirational workers seeking better working conditions. Graduate students are often underpaid and overworked, but they’re trying to get jobs and recommendations from their employer. That’s similar to what happens with minor leaguers. They’re also underpaid and overworked, but they’re trying to get promotions from their employer. Many of these ballplayers are not going to make it to the majors, but they deserve fair treatment whether they’re going to make it or not.
I think the model that was used here — the grassroots organizing capacity being developed to create support amongst the larger labor movement — is a replicable approach in other workplaces, and the success of Minor League Baseball shows what is possible when those things are executed correctly.