MLBPA wants to represent minor league baseball players

Rob Manfred didn’t make his mark in baseball as a former player, general manager, or team president, or team owner, or marketing or broadcast executive.

Manfred, the commissioner, has made a name for himself as an employment lawyer. Under his watch, a quarter-century of industrial peace collapsed last December when owners locked out players. And in a dramatic move late Sunday night, Major League Baseball Players Assn. stated his intention to represent minor league players.

If enough minor league players agree, Manfred and the major league owners would no longer decide for themselves how much minor leagues should be paid. Collective bargaining would also determine whether minor leagues should remain tied to the major league team that signed them for seven years and what standards should be set in everything from housing and food to licensing and merchandising.

“Poverty wages, oppressive reserve rules, discipline without due process, ever-growing off-season commitments, appropriation of intellectual property, below-average attention to player health and safety, and a chronic lack of respect for minor leagues as a whole (to name a few) — these cancers in our game exist because minor league players have never had a seat at the negotiating table,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said in an email to agents first obtained by Athletic. “It’s time for that to change.”

That could have changed without the intervention of the players’ union, but the reforms that Manfred and the owners have enacted in the smaller leagues have largely been reactive rather than proactive.

When a group of minor leagues sued MLB for violating the state minimum wage law in 2014, MLB responded by lobbying Congress for an exemption. Without an exemption, MLB warned, minor league teams could be eliminated.

In 2018, Congress approved the exception. MLB eliminated 43 minor league teams anyway.

When the Senate Judiciary Committee was considering whether to strip MLB of its antitrust exemption earlier this year, Manfred suggested that action could lead to the elimination of even more minor league teams.

Meanwhile, in 2020, a nonprofit called Advocates for Minor Leaguers had formed, using social media to show this cramped quarters and stingy meals are used to the minor leagues. In response, MLB agreed to provide lodging facilities for minor leagues for the first time.

And after a judge ruled that minor leagues should be considered year-round employees and paid for both spring training and the regular season, MLB agreed to pay $185 million to settle that 2014 lawsuit.

This agreement failed to quell mounting public pressure. In July, Manfred told me, regarding the antitrust exemption, “I can’t think of any place where the exemption would really make sense, except in franchise relocation.” The Senate Judiciary Committee took note, and the committee chairman, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), told me he plans to invite Manfred to a hearing in Washington, probably in September or October.

Meanwhile, at this month’s All-Star game, Manfred said this about minor leagues: “I reject the premise that they’re not being paid a living wage.” Beyond the salary, he cited signing bonuses and free housing.

On the same day, Advocates for Minor Leaguers executive director Harry Marino said of major league owners, “I think the league is very nervous.”

With that crescendo of criticism, the MLBPA offered to do what it had long resisted: represent the minor leagues. The MLBPA had helped minor leagues in other ways, but the potential for conflict with the major leagues had been a hurdle.

“Essentially everything is traded dollar for dollar in negotiations,” pitcher and MLBPA rep Andrew Miller told me in 2018. However, we would likely sacrifice, say, arbitration or some type of dollar spent elsewhere on our behalf will. That’s just the reality of the deal.”

On Sunday night, Miller was one of the voices in the video promoting the MLBPA plan to minor leagues, according to The Athletic. An MLBPA official said no one on the union’s executive board voted against the plan.

On Monday, the union publicly announced its decision to organize the minor leagues, and Advocates said it was closing operations because its employees had accepted positions within the MLBPA. Proponents and MLBPA leaders had been quietly working on the organizational plan for months, according to a person familiar with the progress.

The MLBPA plans to create a separate bargaining unit for the minor leagues because their employment contract would be independent of the current major league contract.

The salary for a triple-A player starts at around $14,000. The salary for a player at the top level of the minor hockey leagues starts at around $52,000. The minor leagues in hockey are unionized, and the minor leagues in baseball might be unionized now.

That doesn’t mean smaller leagues in baseball will get better salaries next season. On Sunday night, the MLBPA asked minor leagues to sign a card authorizing the union as their representative in collective bargaining. Under the federal Labor Code, if 30% sign, the minor leagues would vote on whether to join the MLBPA, with a majority required.

If a significant number of minor leagues sign, the MLBPA could ask the MLB to recognize the minor leagues as unionized without a vote, and negotiations for a treaty could begin. But MLB — like any employer — could demand a vote. In the run up to that vote, MLB – like any employer – could try to convince smaller leagues that they would be better off without the union.

Under Manfred, the owners have improved wages and working conditions in the minor leagues, but only reluctantly and not without outside pressure. This track record suggests that owners might be better off working with the union here than fighting the union and trying to force a vote. Keep in mind that the owners have already lost $185 million battling minor leagues.

An MLB campaign against a union might boil down to: “Trust Manfred; he’ll do the right thing.” In that case, you’re betting on a piece of metal here that the big leagues would rush to rally around the little league cause.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2022-08-29/major-league-players-union-wants-to-represent-minor-leaguers MLBPA wants to represent minor league baseball players

Emma Bowman

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