Seemingly overnight, Minor League Baseball is changing. Major League Baseball elected to recognize the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) as minor leaguers’ union representative (avoiding an election), and an arbitrator validated the union-authorization cards. Now, the MLBPA and Major League Baseball, through their respective negotiators, will work together to draft a new collective bargaining agreement for the newly-unionized players.
How We Got Here
Consistently subject to low wages and difficult living conditions, minor league players have been pushing for better working conditions for years.
In 2014, multiple players filed a class action lawsuit, Senne, et al. v. MLB, et al., on behalf of thousands of minor league baseball players that were not paid during spring training or received salaries below the poverty line. The lawsuit had multiple amended Complaints and multiple Class certifications, including the final classes encompassing players from California, Arizona, and Florida. The allegations included violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and state minimum wage laws in California, Arizona, and Florida (Florida and Arizona are the locations for Spring Training).
In response to Senne, in 2018, Congress passed the “Save America’s Pastime Act.” The Act exempted minor league baseball players from FLSA protections. Thus, under federal law, teams were allowed to pay minor leaguers below minimum wage.
Prior to the 2021 baseball season, Major League Baseball restructured Minor League Baseball teams by eliminating over 40 teams and hundreds of roster spots.
Shifting to 2022, fortunes began to turn for minor leaguers. Due to consistent advocacy from players and organizations alike, including Advocates For Minor Leaguers, Major League Baseball began requiring teams to provide housing for minor leaguers, among other better living conditions.
Further, in March, Judge Joseph C. Spero ruled in Senne that minor leaguers are year-round employees. Moreover, Major League Baseball violated or failed to comply with state minimum wage law requirements. The ruling eventually led to the parties reaching a settlement, including Major League Baseball paying over $120 million to players.
In June and July, the United States Senate Judiciary Committee sent letters to Advocates for Minor Leaguers and Major League Baseball questioning Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption on Minor League Baseball and its players. First established in 1922 in Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League, Major League Baseball’s exemption from the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 has allowed Major League Baseball to control nearly every aspect of Minor League Baseball, including wage-fixing and other working conditions, leaving players little opportunity to negotiate salaries due to lengthy contracts with minimal pay increases. Thus, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee sought to reconsider the exemption.
With the fortunes turning, Tony Clark, Executive Director of the MLBPA, determined that it was the right time to push unionizing for minor leaguers.
The MLBPA has already added all employees of Advocates for Minor Leaguers and will now focus on organizing the player-leadership for minor leaguers and work on negotiating a new CBA after the season. With most minor leaguers earning a salary between $4,800 and $14,700 per year, expect player wages to be a focal point of the CBA negotiations. Other topics could include upgrading facilities, improving travel and scheduling, and adding meals.
The increase in costs will leave teams seeking new ways to finance the future. With the national success of summer baseball teams like the Savannah Bananas, teams should push to generate more media revenue through television or streaming networks. Either way, all 120 Minor League Baseball teams have signed Professional Development Licenses with Major League Baseball until 2030. Thus, any effort by Major League Baseball to downsize will have to happen at a later date.
Changes to Minor League Baseball are approaching rapidly. Now, players will have the opportunity to shape a new future that includes higher wages and better living conditions.