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Minor League ballplayers now have a union

The MLBPA has been officially named as the representative of most minor league ballplayers in collective bargaining.

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New York Yankees v New York Mets
MLBPA chief Tony Clark
Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The Major League Baseball Players Association has officially succeeded in its efforts to unionize the minor leaguers. Arbitrator Martin Schienman officially certified that more than 50 percent of minor league ballplayers have signed a card asking for union representation. Major League Baseball announced that they would recognize the union in that case, forgoing any demand for an up-or-down vote election run by the National Labor Relations Board.

It’s rather stunning how quickly all of this developed. It was only a little over two weeks ago that the MLBPA announced that they were starting a unionization drive after merging with the non-profit Advocates for Minor Leaguers organization. All minor league players were sent an authorization card to return, and union head Tony Clark quickly announced that over 50 percent of minor leaguers had signed and returned the cards.

What is also a bit shocking is that MLB chose not to contest this. Normally when there is a unionization effort, an employer hires high-paid lawyers that specialize in labor negotiations (aka “union-busters”) and try to convince enough employees to change their minds before a vote is held. But MLB chose not to do that. Instead, they voluntarily agreed to recognize that the MLBPA was the official representatives of minor league ballplayers.

I was personally (pleasantly) shocked by MLB’s decision. I wrote two weeks ago that they would not. So why did MLB not fight this? Michael Baumann laid out many of the pros and cons for MLB voluntarily recognizing the union last week, but the general consensus is that MLB didn’t feel like spending millions of dollars on a campaign that they’d probably lose anyway and would just end up antagonizing the players. There was also fear created by members of Congress who had been making noise about stripping MLB’s antitrust exemptions over their treatment of minor league employees. Recognizing the union probably stops those efforts in Congress dead in their tracks.

MLB also notes that they chose to accept the unionization because they already negotiate contracts with unions regularly (the players, the umpires) and that working with one more was no big deal to them. In MLB’s official statement, they announced:

Major League Baseball has a long history of bargaining in good faith with unions, including those representing minor and major league umpires, and major league players. We respect the right of workers to decide for themselves whether to unionize. Based on the authorization cards gathered, MLB has voluntarily and promptly recognized the MLBPA as the representatives of minor league players. We are hopeful that a timely and fair collective bargaining agreement will be reached that is good for the game, minor league players and our fans

MLBPA head Tony Clark issued this statement:

I applaud this extraordinary group of young Players and welcome them to the MLBPA.

This historic achievement required the right group of Players at the right moment to succeed. Minor Leaguers have courageously seized that moment, and we look forward to improving their terms and conditions of employment through the process of good faith collective bargaining.

I also want to acknowledge the tireless efforts of Harry Marino and the dedicated group he led at Advocates for Minor Leaguers, without whom this historic organizing campaign would not have been possible.

Harry Marino, formerly of Advocates for Minor Leaguers and now assistant general counsel for the MLBPA, also released a statement:

For decades, conventional wisdom said it was impossible to unionize the Minor Leagues. Over the past few years, a group of audacious and committed folks came together to prove that wrong. Each and every person who spent time working on behalf of Minor Leaguers in recent years shares in today’s victory. Special recognition is owed to the Advocates for Minor Leaguers outreach coordinators and Steering Committee members whose tireless work in recent months made today a reality. The game of baseball and the lives of thousands will be better because of their efforts.

The Athletic’s Evan Drellich, who has been on this story from the beginning, published a piece on Wednesday on the journey from the formation of Advocates for Minor Leaguers in 2020 to the unionization this week. (The Athletic sub. req.) In it, Drellich reveals that while MLB was aware of some unionization efforts in minors earlier this year, they were taken by surprise a few weeks ago when it was revealed that the MLBPA had gotten behind the effort.

Drellich’s article also answers one question that had been lingering over these unionization efforts: Who will be included in the collective bargaining unit or, to put it another way, who is in the union?

About 5,500 players will be the bargaining unit. All players on full-season minor league rosters, players in extended spring training or in the complex leagues (The Arizona Complex League and the Florida Complex League) will be represented. The only exceptions will be:

  • Players who are on the voluntarily retired list
  • On the inactive list for more than two years
  • In non-US based leagues (i.e. the Dominican Summer League)
  • On the 40-man roster

Of course, players on the MLB 40-man roster are in the major leaguer’s union. The MLBPA has said that they would like to represent the interests of players in the DSL, but that they will not be their official representatives. What this means is that in bargaining talks, the MLBPA can ask for certain things for DSL players and MLB will have the legal right to either agree to negotiate with the union on these issues or declare that they aren’t going to listen to proposals for DSL players.

There is one thing that might be confusing for some people. The minor leaguers and major leaguers will be in separate unions, both under the aegis of the MLBPA. The MLBPA will represent both groups separately and negotiate collective bargaining agreements for the two groups separately. Some have pointed out that the MLBPA may have a conflict of interest here, as more money for the minor leagues could mean less for the major leaguers and vice-versa. But the MLBPA has long been negotiating such conflicts, such as those between highly-paid stars and middle relievers making the league minimum wage. This just adds another level to the balancing act that they’ve had to perform for years.

Both MLB and the MLBPA have expressed a desire to get a collective bargaining agreement for the minor leaguers done quickly in the first weeks of the off-season. That might be more wishful thinking, as the first CBA is often the most difficult. Also, the players have a lot of work to do in simply creating a bargaining committee, electing union representatives and deciding their negotiating priorities.

There’s one other union-related note for baseball. Last week, the MLBPA officially joined the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization for US labor unions. They will serve on a sports council within the AFL-CIO with other sports unions including the NFL players union and the unions for men’s and women’s soccer.

There are still several hurdles ahead for the union. Just because MLB has agreed to recognize the union doesn’t mean that they’ll negotiate fairly with them. MLB could refuse to budge on several union priorities (mostly salary, one would presume) and that could drag out negotiations for a while. On the other hand, the amount of money involved in bargaining talks with the Minor League union is likely to be quite small compared to what MLB deals with in their talks with the major leaguers. They might feel that it’s not worth antagonizing players who will one day be in the major leaguer’s union, much as they decided not to fight the unionization efforts.

So the fight to improve the lives of minor league ballplayers just crossed an important marker. But there is still a lot of work to be done before a fair collective bargaining agreement can be concluded.