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Congress, baseball team up to cheat minor leaguers

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Billionaire owners don’t think they have enough money, so they get Congress to help them take money out of the pockets of the poorest in the game.

MLB: World Series-Los Angeles Dodgers at Houston Astros Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

They’ve gone and done it.

Faced with the prospect of a class action lawsuit because minor league ballplayers do not make a federally-mandated minimum wage for the for the long hours they put in seven days a week, Congress has stuck inside a “must-pass” budget bill the Orwellian-named “Save America’s Pastime Act.” This bill would allow MLB owners to continue to exploit minor league baseball players and pay them a sub-minimum wage as a matter of law.

This act is a response to a series of class action lawsuits by former minor league players who were not paid a federally-mandated minimum wage for their time in the minors. Two years ago, I wrote about an attempt to pass this bill as a “stand-alone” law but the bill died very quickly in the face of public opposition. As I noted at the time, the bat boys for minor league teams were making more money than some minor leaguers.

But Major League Baseball did not give up in its attempt to head off this lawsuit not through negotiation, but through subterfuge. They spent $2.6 million on lobbying members of Congress to pass this bill. (That’s $2.6 million that could have gone to paying minor league ballplayers.) Now, they’ve found a way. By sticking the act inside of a bigger, “must-pass” budget bill, the members of Congress (from both parties, I should add) can pay off their contributions from MLB and can plausibly deny that they support it. Who put this section into the bill? We don’t know. And if any member of Congress is confronted with their vote for this violation of fair labor practices, they can simply say “I didn’t support it, but it was in a bill we had to pass or the government was going to shut down.”

Let’s look at what the bill does. For one, it does say that Minor League ballplayers must be paid the minimum wage. That’s good. However, it puts in a stipulation that that minimum wage should be determined for “for a workweek of 40 hours, irrespective of the number of hours the employee devotes to baseball related activities.” So yeah. You can be expected to put in ten-hour days seven days a week, but you’re only getting paid for 40. Also, these players are only going to get paid during the regular season. So those 70-hour weeks during Spring Training are not going to be paid.

When adjusted for inflation, minor league ballplayers make less money today than they did in the 1970s, despite the massive growth of the sport at both the major and minor league level.

I can’t believe that any of you would put up with that in your job. Nor should you, because unless you’re a minor league ballplayer, that would be illegal.

The upshot of this is players at the lowest levels of the minor leagues are going to get a $60 a month pay raise. Big whoop. Maybe they can shell out for the queen-sized air mattress that they sleep on now.

I see several ways that people who support this can rationalize their position. The first is that this is the free market and players are paid what the market will bear. That would be a decent argument if there actually was a free market. Instead, 30 teams conspire to set the wage that they all will pay. On top of that, they have a draft that comes with an agreement that one team will not be allowed to hire the employees of another team. Again, in any other industry, this would be a violation of every antitrust law on the books. In baseball, it’s legal.

Next, is what about the large bonuses that the players get when signing? Those bonuses only go to the top draft picks. If everyone was getting a signing bonus like Cubs 2017 first-round draft pick Alex Lange, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But most minor league players get bonuses of less than $10,000, and many only get $1,000 and a plane ticket to Arizona or Florida. The people getting hurt here are the David Bote types in baseball. Bote was an 18th-round pick who got a tiny bonus and a sub-minimum wage paycheck and despite all that, turned himself into what looks like a future major leaguer. (Now that Bote is on the 40-man roster, he’s legally considered a major-league ballplayer and is represented by the union. He just got a raise of about 600%.)

Then there is the tired argument that “interns don’t get paid.” First of all, two wrongs don’t make a right. I could make the argument that the intern system is simply a way of limiting high-paying jobs to the children of the well-off and perpetuates a system that redistributes wealth upwards and maintains the elite’s stranglehold on economic power in America today. But that would be a political argument that goes well beyond baseball, so let me just say that the minor league system is a way of limiting high-paying baseball jobs to the children of the well-off and perpetuates a system that redistributes wealth upwards and maintains the elite’s stranglehold on economic power in baseball.

In any case, the correct response to two exploited groups receiving unequal rewards is not to screw the slightly less-exploited group even more. It’s to raise the level of the worse-off group.

This is even self-defeating for MLB! They keep saying how they need to make an outreach to minority groups in the United States to diversify the game and expand the fanbase. The best way to do that is to make baseball a more attractive career for the less-advantaged in society. How many people gave up on a baseball career because they simply couldn’t afford it? We’ll never know. MLB is uninterested in finding out.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has let his hand work behind the scenes on this one, instead letting the far more-sympathetic Minor League Baseball CEO Pat O’Conner be the public face of this bill. (And I shouldn’t have to remind you that MLB and MiLB are separate entities, do I?) And to be fair, O’Conner has argued that minor leaguers do deserve a raise, just one given out of the goodness of the hearts of MLB owners and not through a lawsuit.

But why is he arguing this at all? Minor League Baseball does not pay the salaries of minor league ballplayers. You would think they’d be all in favor of increased salaries for minor leaguers. Sure, it might mean a fair amount of extra paperwork for the minor league teams, but that hardly seems like it would outweigh the costs that minor league teams have in trying to find host families and other efforts they make to see to it that their players aren’t homeless and starving. (Slight exaggeration, but only slight.) But Minor League Baseball apparently fears that MLB will either force them to pay part of the money or contract teams if they have to pay the minor league players more money. Why do they think that? O’Conner never says that MLB threatened MiLB if they didn’t play along, but that’s the clear implication. But as BIll Baer writes, it’s probably an idle threat. While Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball are separate entities, increasingly teams are purchasing their Minor League affiliates, making them shareholders in both entities. It seems very unlikely that MLB would cut off their own nose to spite their face. Besides, shutting down minor league teams would be a good way to make enemies of those members of Congress that they’ve spent so much money to make friends with.

The MLB Players’ Association could do something about this, but they are putting their short-term interests over their long-term ones. In the short term, any money given to a minor league ballplayer could be taken away from a major league one. But a healthy union would be looking to expand its representation, not hurt non-unionized workers in the same industry. The NHLPA represents minor league hockey players, and those players receive a living wage. The MLBPA could do the same, but they won’t.

Organizing the minor leaguers would also forestall the use of any “replacement players” in future work stoppages. The MLBPA does not seem to have considered that.

Theoretically, the minor leaguers could form their own union, but that’s not realistic.

Then there is Congress, who could have told MLB to buzz off. But that would mean giving up their contributions. Again, both parties are to blame here.

Finally, the real villains here are the major league owners. They are redistributing wealth upwards by exploiting the dreams of young kids, some of whom grew up in third-world poverty in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. They could have put an end to these lawsuits through negotiations and agreeing to pay a reasonable salary to their minor league ballplayers. Instead, they decided to deal with it by greasing some palms and making the legal basis for the lawsuit go away.

Why are MLB owners doing it this way? Because they can and they really, really don’t care about the welfare of their players. They only care for the value they can provide in increased revenues. This is true of a lot of industries, but most industries don’t have Congress exempting them from antitrust and fair labor laws.

Finally, and I need to say this, do NOT take this out on Minor League Baseball. Many of the people who work there aren’t making much money either and they do it out of their love of the game. I wrote a piece yesterday about why you should go see a minor league game and that’s still true. Boycotting the minors will not help the condition that these players toil in. It will only make it worse. Instead, go to the game and if they pass around the hat for the players (and yes, they do this), give what you can. Remember, your ticket only pays for the stadium, the workers in the stands and the front office and the utility bills. It doesn’t pay the players.

Baseball is a beautiful game, but often it is a pretty ugly business.