As the deadline rapidly approaches to determine whether the 2022 season will start on time, proposals are flying around about changes to the Major League Collective Bargaining Agreement. Changes to luxury tax penalties, bonus pool money for pre-arbitration players, and expanded playoffs are all on the table.
But in all the negotiations, one specific group within baseball gets nothing: minor-league baseball players. Unlike major leaguers, minor leaguers do not have a players union to represent them and do not operate under a collective bargaining agreement, which gives them very little leverage in advocating for change. The situation has resulted in horrible playing conditions for minor leaguers. Yet, the progress made by MLBPA may offer a glimpse of hope for MiLB players.
Poor Treatment of Minor Leaguers
Minor league baseball players perform under conditions that violate multiple labor laws. During the five-month-long season, MiLB players earn between roughly $8,000 and $14,000. Despite most players working around 70 hours per week when accounting for travel, most minor leaguers are not eligible for overtime pay and are capped at a 40-hour workweek. Signing bonuses, which are supposed to make up for the lower incomes, are not enough for the majority of players. According to Baseball America, 60% of players receive signing bonuses of $100,000 or less, 40% receive $10,000 or less, 35% receive $5,000 or less, and 21% receive $1,000 or less. As a result, a significant amount of players are forced to go into debt and work multiple jobs to finance their baseball dreams.
Beyond pay, MiLB players face a number of challenges compared to their MLB counterparts. They are forced to pay for their own food, which results in players either starving or subsisting on junk food. They are subject to random drug tests for non-steroids: a positive test for marijuana can result in a 50-game suspension. The conditions have culminated in a mental health crisis that is plaguing the minor leagues.
For many players, baseball is the only option. Sold on the promise of making it to the big leagues, players choose to forego a better education in pursuit of their dream. In the end, players without the financial resources to sustain their dream end up getting left behind, forced to retire from baseball with little money and no degree.
No Minor League Players Union
When the Major League Players Association (MLBPA) was founded in 1954, including minor league players was not deemed an option. Marvin Miller, the first executive director of MLBPA, felt that minor leaguers would never be able to effectively stand up to owners: “The notion that these very young, inexperienced people were going to defy the owners, when they had stars in their eyes about making it to the Major Leagues — it’s just not going to happen.” It was hard enough for major leaguers to fight the owners themselves—including minor leaguers in their concerns would make negotiations a death sentence.
Despite some minor changes, the MLBPA still represents very few minor league baseball players. Minor league players on the 40-man roster are MLBPA members with major league benefits, including higher minimum salaries. But this still represents an extremely small percentage of the overall population of minor-leaguers, who do not have any union to represent them.
Minor leaguers have made some recent progress towards forming their own union. Advocates for Minor Leaguers is an organization founded by former minor league players that attempts to shine a light on the poor treatment of minor league baseball players. But it is not an official union, and it does not have any plans to meet with MLB about forming a minor league collective bargaining agreement.
Why is a Union Necessary?
Recent reform by MLB in response to outrage has put into question the need for a union to represent minor league baseball players. MLB announced that starting next season, MLB will require teams to provide housing for minor league players. MLB raised minimum salaries anywhere from 38-72% for the 2021 season.
But there is reason to doubt whether MLB truly has minor league baseball players’ interests at heart. MLB recently argued that minor leaguers should not be paid during spring training in federal court. During major league CBA negotiations, MLB proposed cutting the number of minor league roster spots. Even when some minor league teams have chosen to guarantee food for their players, it has been of terrible quality.
Despite public outrage, there are very few incentives for MLB to improve minor league conditions. The owners get increased revenues by suppressing players’ wages, and through lobbying Congress, MLB has been able to fight back against labor lawsuits.
The owners can certainly afford to pay players a living wage. It would cost each team a total of $4.5 million per year to pay for every minor league player to make $30,000 per year. Considering MLB spent $1.3 million a year on lobbying in 2016 and 2017 and makes $10 billion in revenue annually, better working conditions are not a question of financial capability.
The irony to MLB’s resistance is that improving minor league conditions would be beneficial for the league. The quality of players would drastically improve if they could focus on improving their baseball skills. Instead of paying millions of dollars in litigation and lobbying, MLB could resolve a public relations crisis and save money.
In order to force MLB to come to the negotiating table, a union is necessary. As Colin McHugh, a former member of the MLBPA explains: “It’s impossible to stand up for your own rights when you’re one versus the machine.”
Unions for minor leaguers have been successful in other sports. The Pro Hockey Players Association has advocated for higher minimum salaries for its minor league players than those in baseball, despite the NHL taking in less than half the revenue of MLB. The NHL and PHPA have regular meetings and both the AHL and ECHL (hockey minor leagues) operate under a CBA.
The lockout has certainly revealed the unwillingness of owners and MLB to cooperate with players’ interests. But, negotiations are resulting in improvements for major league players. Higher minimum salaries and pre-arbitration bonus pools are proof that union representation does work.
It is past time for minor league baseball players to negotiate their own collective bargaining agreement. The Supreme Court has shown recent skepticism over the anti-trust laws that allow owners to determine the salaries of MiLB players. Minor leaguers should build off the momentum of the MLBPA and form a Minor League Players Association. Until then, change will never happen.
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