Here’s how a $15 minimum wage would impact minor-league pay

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Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to increase the federal minimum wage to $15. Leaving aside that the bill in question wouldn’t actually raise the minimum to $15 until 2025, or that this won’t pass the Senate and become the law of the land, it’s worth exploring how this kind of change would impact baseball in the United States.

While a higher minimum wage wouldn’t impact MLB players, given the league minimum is $550,000 right now, it would change the salaries of minor-league players as well as those in independent ball. It might even succeed in killing indie baseball, but as I’ve written about before, that’s not the worst outcome, at least when we’re talking about the current format of independent ball. Give me municipal baseball teams and give them to me now, thanks.

A jump to a $15 minimum wage would be massive for MLB’s minor-league players, who currently, at the lowest levels, pull in $1,160 per month, and only for the months of the regular season. Despite working about 70 hours per week, none of them are receiving overtime, and won’t, either, thanks to MLB’s years of lobbying Congress to make sure that didn’t happen, which resulted in minor-league players being singled out in last spring’s $1.3 trillion spending bill. They have to get offseason jobs, split roach-infested, filthy, broken apartments with five other teammates, eat mac and cheese and ramen and Dollar Menu meals all the time because of the low pay and road-only $25 per diem, purchase their own equipment… you see what I’m saying. More than doubling the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 would be huge for these sub-poverty-level workers.

Of course, then these players would still only be making $2,400 per month for five months — that’s just $12,000 per season — and they still wouldn’t have overtime, or their housing taken care of, or a higher per diem, or their equipment acquired by the team. That’s how horrific the current pay conditions are for these players, that more than doubling their salaries would still leave them in a horrible place where they’re overworked, underpaid, and forced to pick up secondary jobs while still keeping themselves in shape for baseball and honing their skills outside of the season.

And yet, you get the sense, given everything MLB has done to these players — again, the years of lobbying, at the cost of millions, in order to make sure player salaries are tied to the minimum wage and exempt from overtime — that if there were to be a minimum wage increase like that passed by the House, that would be all they hand out to fix the situation. Commissioner Rob Manfred has spoken about the need to pay minor-leaguers “correctly,” and a mandated minimum wage hike would be just what he needs to continue to avoid paying players anywhere near their share.

MLB could point out that salaries more than doubled for many players, and that they did give all of these players a raise, when in fact they were forced to pay that money by the government. And that $15 is still an awful wage, especially for the kind of money generated by players. MiLB itself is a thriving business, and MLB teams, which are part of a $10 billion-per-year industry, are the ones paying the salaries of the minor-league players. The players that have created the product that generates those billions get their start in the minors, against minor-league competition that, even if they aren’t making it to the bigs themselves, helped the players become the best in the world. And yet, with a $15 minimum wage and no overtime, they’re looking at $12,000 per year.

Let’s talk about inflation a bit, too. $15 is not worth what it was when the push for a $15 minimum wage first began. The last time the federal minimum wage was raised was 2009, when it was brought to $7.25. In 2019, that $7.25 is worth $6.07 according to this inflation calculator. So, the $1,160 minor-league players made in 2009 dollars is only worth $979 in today’s dollars, the $5,800 they make for the season is worth $4,858, and so on. Similarly, the stated start date for the Fight for $15 is in 2012: that $15 from 2012 is worth $13.45 now, per the same calculator. By 2025, given the way inflation works, that’s only going to look worse.

We’ll say that six years from now, when the House’s bill would have fully kicked in, inflation has cut another dollar from the value of $15, so $15 in 2012 money is worth $12.45 in 2025 cash. Meanwhile, rents are higher, equipment isn’t cheaper, Dollar Menus are even further from having food that costs $1 on it, minor-league teams are still charging their own players for sandwiches, and so on. The $2,400 of today, because of inflation, is really worth under $2,000 by 2025, and the $12,000 is worth under $10,000. Now, there’s no hard math in there, and this isn’t me attempting to predict exactly how inflation will go, so much as it is pointing out how $15 isn’t really $15, especially when it’s not to be implemented for six years, when this particular fight has already been going for at least seven, and the last increase came 10 years ago.

MLB doesn’t need to care about those particulars, though: they’d do the bare minimum and say hey, we raised salaries, discussion over. And most importantly, this change would be coming about without any input from minor-league players. The government would decide what the minimum was, MLB would roll with it because they have no other choice, and MiLB players would simply have to accept that there is some improvement to their quality of life, but only some, and MLB isn’t about to do more than they have to.

As I wrote back in March, when the question of increased minor-league pay came up because the Blue Jays had done some of it on their own:

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.

None of that has changed, and the House passing a symbolic bill that won’t become law certainly isn’t going to sway me from my position, either.

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