Raising minor-league wages is a plus, but there’s still work to be done

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Major League Baseball is likely tired of all of the discussion about the working and living conditions of Minor League Baseball players, and the proof of that is in the latest rumor on the matter. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported on Tuesday that MLB and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which runs MiLB, are discussing ways to increase player pay and improve the conditions they deal with.

There are a few things to keep in mind from the start here, and they should temper your enthusiasm for this as anything but MLB trying to get fans and media to stop looking behind the curtain. Harm reduction is great and all, but there remains work to be done.

The first is that MLB spent millions of dollars lobbying the federal government so that they could ensure that they wouldn’t have to pay minor leaguers for overtime. The introduction of their efforts, in the Save America’s Pastime Act that was shoved near the end of a 2,000-plus page bill, was signed into being less than a year ago. MiLB’s players will only be paid for 40 hours per week, no less than the federal minimum wage, but the 20 or 30 or 40 other hours per week they work in addition to those 40 will not be compensated according to federal law, law that MLB made sure was in place.

The chances that MLB would spend millions on making sure they can limit minor leaguers’ earnings and then turn around a year later and give them anything even close to a fair salary are nonexistent. As Passan points out, while the Blue Jays recently gave their Class A players a 50 percent increase in salary, that still amounts to less than $12,000 per year. The bare minimum received praise, so guess what owners will probably aim for?

The second item is living conditions: as Garrett Broshuis pointed out in Passan’s piece, college baseball players have a higher per diem than MiLB’s players. I wrote about that awful per diem last summer, too:

In conversations with former minor leaguers and labor leaders in sports, there were two numbers that kept coming up: six, and two. Two is the number of bedrooms in the apartment that as many as six minor league teammates would often live in, in order to split rent as many ways as possible on these meager salaries — salaries that, after rent, had just enough leftover to ensure that players could buy some macaroni and cheese or hit up the value menu at McDonald’s to sustain themselves. On the road, things were a little bit better, but please read “better” with as much relativity as possible: the per diem for away games is $25 per player. If a player wants to keep eating fast food, then hey, $25 can certainly be stretched out over three meals. Or two, if the players are lucky enough to have their team buy them a pre-game sandwich the league president will then berate them for eating.

Meanwhile, the Pro Hockey Players Association, which covers minor-league hockey leagues, collectively bargained a per diem of $75 per day for American Hockey League players — and that’s ignoring the fact those players are paid an actual living wage even at the league-minimum salary, to boot.

MLB might be bumping that up, but given the info Passan is sharing, it sounds like that might be an area they’re expecting the minor-league affiliates themselves to be picking up the cost, which in turn means this is an area there will likely be fights over. If not the per diem, then whatever bill it is that MLB’s owners are expecting MiLB’s owners to foot will be a potential source of conflict — fewer gate receipts because of a drop in games played, teams paying for equipment or better food instead of expecting players to cover that on their meager salaries, acquiring housing for players that isn’t based on the charity of families.

These sources of conflict mean concessions, and those concessions, most likely, will impact the players more than either set of negotiating parties.

And that brings us to item number three: MLB might improve wages and living conditions for players, and do so with the help of the organization running MiLB for them, but there is no seat at this negotiating table for minor-league players. External pressure remains their only play, with organizations like More Than Baseball getting in the press to discuss the awful reality of Baseball’s working class and its poverty, and Broshuis keeping the plight and fight of MiLB players in the news with lawsuits like Senne v. MLB.

In the long run, MiLB players need a union. Or, they need unions, plural, because of the nature of how the minors are organized across leagues and levels. That’s the only way they’ll be able to get a seat at the table, though, because even if MLB invited reps to sit their now, there is no guarantee that those reps would have any real power or leverage. A union would give their cause the legal firepower needed to be able to sit down with MLB and the NAPBL and work out just what kind of wages, housing, and benefits minor-league players need and deserve.

As things stand, though, MLB and the NAPBL will figure out what works best for them, what will play in the media and with fans who might not be fully aware of the fights going on in the minors, and go from there. There will be benefits for minor-league players because of these decisions, sure, but that’s not exactly a high bar they would be clearing there, given just how terrible things are down on the farm.

MLB is obsessed with efficiency in spending, and minor-league baseball is basically sports feudalism, so they aren’t going to want to ruin what they’ve got going on here by spending too much more. It’s incredible, too, because all it would take to pay everyone in the minors a living wage is about $10 million or so per team. There would be additional costs for improved per diems, covering the cost of equipment, housing, and so on, but to pay over 6,000 players $50,000 per year, we’re talking less money per team than what the Mets are paying Jay Bruce annually. And yet, instead, we’re going to be sitting through some incremental improvements, made without any input from MiLB players, with the hope it’ll be enough to quiet the growing, public discontent and knowledge of the reality of Minor League Baseball’s conditions.

Improving wages is a step on a much longer journey, and while that step is necessary, a step is also all it is. It’s going to be important to remember that when the coverage of whatever improvements MLB does make are fawned over across far too much of a media that isn’t inquiring enough into what’s going on with the other 256 teams under the MLB umbrella.

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