A week away from Labor Day, the Major League Baseball Players Association has sent authorization cards to minor leaguers with a request they empower MLBPA to serve as their union. The move comes as the Senate Judiciary Committee is studying MLB’s antitrust exemption and on the heels of MLB settling a class action Fair Labor Standards Act lawsuit with minor league players that will lead to $185 million paid to more than 20,000 players. The potential ramifications of minor league players unionizing are both sizable and hazy.
“Minor leaguers,” MLBPA executive Tony Clark said in a statement, “represent our game’s future and deserve wages and working conditions that benefit elite athletes who entertain millions of baseball fans nationwide.”
Clark’s organization currently negotiates MLB draft eligibility and signing bonus rules with MLB. Even though minor leaguers currently lack a voice in MLBPA, those rules impact their compensation—particularly since drafted players go to the minors rather than straight to the big leagues (unlike NFL drafted players, who go directly to the NFL or are cut).
Under federal labor law, 30% of minor leaguers signing cards would authorize the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a union election. If most of the players then vote in favor of unionizing, MLBPA would become minor league players’ exclusive bargaining representative (MLB could also voluntarily recognize MLBPA as the union). MLBPA would negotiate a CBA on behalf of minor leaguers with MLB. A CBA could improve pay and pension benefits for minor leaguers, whose pay MLB has increased in recent years. MLBPA could also negotiate rules for minor league player disciplinary disputes and limitations and safeguards on drug and PED testing and accompanying penalties.
MLBPA, which is seasoned in bargaining, would offer sizable resources to minor leaguers. MLBPA negotiated its first CBA with MLB in 1968 and, over the years, has bargained numerous employment enhancements for members. They include the use of arbitration for salary disputes, higher minimum salaries, service time accrual, lifetime healthcare and pension provisions and privacy and drug testing protections.
Arbitration played a pivotal role for MLB players in the 1970s when it led to a finding that teams’ renewal rights in player contracts were not perpetual, which in turn paved the way for free agency. Unionization also provides labor the power to strike, though as MLB players know, management has the power to lockout labor, too.
As the union for minor leaguers, MLBPA could more effectively advocate for them on Capitol Hill and urge members to vote against legislation detrimental to players’ interests. In 2018, Congress passed, and President Donald Trump signed into law, the Save America’s Pastime Act. The Act largely eliminated FLSA protections, including for minimum wage and overtime pay, for minor league players. Had minor league players been unionized, the union might have lobbied against the Act or pushed for a milder bill.
Minor league baseball players would join other minor league athletes in forming unions. In 2020, NBA G League players unionized with 80% voting in favor of a union that draws from the National Basketball Players’ Association. The Professional Hockey Players’ Association has negotiated CBAs for players in the American Hockey League and the ECHL.
Unionization of minor league baseball players has been talked about for decades, but past efforts came up short. Minor league baseball careers tend to be short and transitional, whereas unions often represent workers who intend to stay in the profession for many years.
According to MLB, the average career of a minor leaguer who doesn’t become an MLB player is around three years, and the average age when minor leaguers leave baseball to pursue other jobs or schooling is about 23. Minor leaguers also have widely disparate forecasts. Though every organization has a small group of highly regarded prospects, 95% of players drafted after the 10th round never make it to the big leagues.
Whether all minor league players, who play in multiple leagues and levels, share enough employment interests to be placed in the same bargaining unit is an interesting question. Some minor leaguers, namely those on a team’s 40-man roster, receive representation from MLBPA as well as health benefits and licensing share revenue. It’s not clear which group would cover the costs of adding approximately 3,000 more members to MLBPA’s ranks.
While unionization is often associated with labor negotiating higher wages, its impact on minor league baseball players’ working conditions is also hard to predict.
First, data shared by MLB suggests that minor league baseball is unprofitable. In his recent letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, commissioner Rob Manfred wrote that MLB plans to spend at least $1.03 billion in 2022 to operate the minors while likely getting back about $25 million in revenue. Expenses include minor league players’ salaries, as well as housing, health insurance and pension benefits. The primary value of the minors for MLB is player development, but that value is hard to empirically capture when only a small percentage of minor league players advance to the majors. Unions’ ability to bargain higher wages and better benefits is normally predicated on the underlying business being profitable.
Second, it’s unclear what, if any, concessions MLBPA—and its big league membership—is willing to make to ensure better conditions for minor leaguers. This is an important point if minor leaguers lack economic leverage on their own to negotiate higher pay.
Third, unionization would not change applicable provisions of federal law that pertain to minor league baseball players. Most notably, the Curt Flood Act of 1998 eliminated MLB’s antitrust exemption as it relates to major league players’ salaries and working conditions, but explicitly preserved the exemption for minor league baseball, as well as for the draft and franchise relocation. The exemption is thought by some to have been helpful for MLB in recently reorganizing the minors, which led to fewer teams and jobs for players. Those jobs could become more secure if protected by a union.