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MLB Players Association Working to Unionize Minors

In a significant change, the Major League Baseball Players Association took a step toward organizing minor leaguers, sending them authorization cards on Sunday that would allow them to vote to become union members.

Having played for more than 100 years without a formal union, minor league baseball players lack formal representation and thus cannot collectively bargain over wages or working conditions. In recent years, minor leaguers and advocacy groups have become more vocal about player struggles and have drawn the attention of Congress (and the Justice Department, in terms of MLB’s antitrust exemption).

The union’s executive board, which has long refused to represent minor leaguers in part because the interests of the two groups may be at odds, recently voted to take this step, and the union announced the effort Monday. In an email to agents Sunday, Tony Clark, executive director of the players’ union, said the decision to try to unionize the minors was largely based on the “unprecedented momentum for positive change” that the players and advocacy groups have created in recent years.

If successful, roughly 5,000 minor leaguers would form a separate bargaining unit within the larger union.

“Minor League players represent the future of our game and deserve wages and working conditions commensurate with the elite athletes who entertain millions of baseball fans across the country,” Clark said in a statement Monday. “They are an important part of our fraternity and we want to help them achieve their goals both on and off the field.”

According to the National Labor Relations Board, a union can be formed in two ways. First, if at least 30 percent of workers sign a card or petition saying they want a union, the NLRB will hold an election. And if the majority of those who vote choose a union, the board will certify the union as a representative for collective bargaining. Second, the employer can voluntarily recognize the union based on evidence—“typically signed union authorization cards,” according to the board—that a majority of employees want it to represent them.

The baseball union already represents players entering the professional ranks, such as national amateur draft picks or international amateur free agents. But once they sign with an MLB organization, players are not represented by the union again until they are added to a team’s 40-player roster (1,200 total across all 30 MLB teams).

While some players live off big signing bonuses traded on their first contracts, many have to work second jobs to make ends meet. According to Advocates for Minor Leaguers, a two-year-old nonprofit organization that has spearheaded this fight, the “vast majority” of minor leaguers “earn less than $12,000, below the federal poverty line.”

Through a spokesman, MLB declined to comment on the unionization effort Monday.

MLB, which took over and began reshuffling the minor leagues two years ago, has long argued that those players were akin to trainees in fields like art, music and theater who are working their way into a higher echelon. of their trade where they would be handsomely compensated. According to MLB, the average time spent in the minor leagues was about two and a half years. The MLB minimum salary in 2022 is $700,000, while the average is $4 million.

in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee Last month, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred wrote that “58% of drafted minor leaguers receive a signing bonus of $100,000 or more when they sign their initial contract. Players who don’t get larger signing bonuses will generally have very short baseball careers and transition to other careers in their twenties, and are truly temporary employees who are free to pursue other employment or further their education in the off-season.”

He continued: “And for those few years that they are chasing their dream of becoming a major league player despite great odds, they receive health insurance, housing benefits, pension benefits, meals, and often reimbursement for the tuition for a college degree or other training/education: benefits that are not available to most college-age employees in this country when they enter the workforce.”

How much minor league players are paid and treated has been a particularly hot topic of late. Last month, MLB agreed to pay $185 million to settle a class action lawsuit brought by thousands of current and former minor league players over past salary claims.

Under the proposed agreement, MLB must formally notify all major league clubs that they can no longer prohibit teams from paying players during spring training, extended spring training or any work period other than during spring training. the championship season, which includes the regular season and the playoffs. .

In 2021, MLB increased the salary of minor league players, with Class A minimum salaries rising from $290 to $500 per week and Class AAA salaries rising from $502 to $700. And this season, it enacted a housing policy under which the 30 MLB teams were required to provide housing for most players. (In the past, players often had to pay for their own housing, which resulted in cases where multiple players were crammed into a single room in an apartment.)

In Clark’s email to agents, he wrote: “Poverty wages, oppressive booking rules, discipline without due process, ever-increasing off-season duties, appropriation of intellectual property, poor attention to employee health and safety. players and a chronic lack of respect for minor leaguers as a whole (to name just a few): These cancers in our game exist because minor leaguers have never had a seat at the bargaining table. It’s time for that to change.”

While acknowledging the work of advocacy groups, the union also announced that it would absorb one of the most prominent of those groups: Advocates for Minor Leaguers. The group said it will cease daily operations and each member of its staff has accepted a new role in the union.

“This generation of minor leaguers has shown an unprecedented ability to address workplace issues with a collective voice,” Harry Marino, the nonprofit’s outgoing CEO, said in a statement. “Joining the most powerful union in professional sports ensures this voice is heard where it matters most: at the bargaining table.”


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