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MLBPA launches organizing drive for minor leaguers

The union leadership is looking to represent minor league ballplayers.

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Tony Clark, Executive Director of the MLB Players Association
Getty Images

Late Sunday night, it was revealed that the Major League Baseball Players Association has begun an organization drive that would make the players’ union the official representatives of minor league ballplayers through collective bargaining. Joon Lee of ESPN had the story first.

Official authorization cards were sent out to all minor league ballplayers on Sunday. Here’s what the cards look like:

These cards are confidential and employers, in this case Major League Baseball and the 30 teams, are not supposed to know who did and who did not sign one.

MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark also sent a 4½-minute video to all minor league players explaining why they should sign the card and be represented by the Players Association. In it, Clark said (The Athletic subscription required):

Everything we’ve achieved as an organization is tied to the players at that time being willing to stand for what they believed was right and fair. That’s how this works. That’s how it happens. And so the question becomes whether or not you as a part of this player group, at this time, are willing to take that stand. If you do, the possibilities are endless. If you don’t, it’s going to be remarkably difficult for any group of players that comes after you to make the decision at that time, in that climate, to unionize. I believe you are the right group. I believe you are the right players, and I believe that this is the right time.

Clark also sent out an email to agents shortly before midnight Eastern time Sunday. In it, he outlined why minor league players need union representation.

Poverty wages, oppressive reserve rules, discipline without due process, ever expanding off-season obligations, appropriation of intellectual property, substandard attention to player health and safety, and a chronic lack of respect for minor leaguers as a whole (to name just a few) – these cancers on our game exist because Minor League Players have never had a seat at the bargaining table . . .

The MLBPA plans to hold a video chat all day today to answer questions from the players.

How this works from here: Players will be asked to sign those cards and send them back to the union. If 30 percent of minor league players agree to be represented by the union, the MLBPA can turn those cards into the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and ask for an election. In practice, however, unions generally do not ask for an election until they get far more than 30 percent of the workers to sign a card.

If over 50 percent of minor league players sign and return those authorization cards, the MLBPA can turn them in and ask MLB to voluntarily recognize the union as the official bargaining representatives of minor league ballplayers.

Major League Baseball will not voluntarily recognize the union. In which case, an election will be scheduled by the NLRB as before.

The NLRB can also order MLB to recognize the union as the representatives of minor leaguers without an election if over 75 percent of the players sign cards. However, they are very unlikely to do so unless MLB does things that makes them very angry. That normally means that they repeatedly violated the law, and MLB is too smart to do that.

The union announced this in a shocking move Sunday night that seems to have caught MLB by surprise. The commissioner’s office was not available for comment late Sunday night.

This was not a spur of the moment move from the union, either. According to Clark, the union leadership authorized this move after much debate. They have been working with Advocates for Minor Leaguers—the organization who has been calling attention to the low pay and sometimes shameful working conditions in the minors over the past few years — and through them they now claim to have official representatives with every minor league affiliate. All four of the workers for the non-profit Advocates for Minor Leaguers have now resigned and have become employees of the MLBPA to present a unified face for the organizing effort.

If this all sounds simple, it isn’t. While MLB seems to have been caught off-guard by this move this evening, they will quickly come up with plans to prevent minor league players from being represented by the MLBPA. There are lots of delaying tactics at their disposal, which could push the organization drive until next year when presumably many of the players who signed union authorization cards will have been released and replaced by new players. They will also no doubt hire a law firm that is experienced in quashing organization drives and they will send the players a lot of information as to why they believe union representation would be bad for the players.

Here’s a Twitter thread with more details.

Here at Bleed Cubbie Blue, we’ve had several articles over the past five or six years about the plight of minor league ballplayers, as long ago as 2015 and as recently as last year. The big media companies like ESPN and The Athletic, as well as many local newspapers, have covered the story as well. The Advocates for Minor Leaguers have also been putting pressure on MLB to improve working conditions for the players.

MLB responded to these efforts by lobbying Congress to pass the “Save America’s Pastime Act” which exempted minor league ballplayers from minimum wage laws in 2018. The bill was first proposed in 2016 and it was quickly withdrawn in the face of opposition. But MLB managed to get it snuck in to a large omnibus spending bill and it passed along with everything else with no debate whatsoever and little notice until after it already had passed.

But the tactics of the minor league advocates have worked, to a certain extent, and things are better for minor league ballplayers now than they were back in 2018. Minor league players are now guaranteed decent housing, for example. But wages are still well below the minimum wage and players are still expected to work Spring Training and other off-season events for free. MLB points to the large bonuses that players get as a reason that the players don’t need a minimum wage, but the truth of the matter is that the large majority of players do not get large, life-changing money when they sign up to play professional baseball.

For many years, people have asked why the MLBPA didn’t represent the minor league ballplayers. The truth of the matter is that they were left out in the early days of the union because they were too difficult to organize (and Marvin Miller and friends already had their hands full) and the minor leaguers haven’t been added since because the interest of major league and minor league ballplayers are not always in sync. For example, more money for minor league ballplayers could mean less money for the major leaguers.

But the MLBPA has decided to take on that challenge and organize the minors. It will be a long, difficult battle with an uncertain result at the end. But it will be one of the biggest stories in baseball over the next few months, or even years.