Culture of unionization in the NBA’s minors vs. MLB’s

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Some major news happened about a month ago, but it didn’t get very much play. That’s not because no one cares or that it’s not actually important, but has to do a lot with the state of things in the news right now. There are just a few things going on sucking up all of the oxygen in the room, between the literal pandemic, all of the election discourse, the return of live sports, the temporary postponement of live sports for MLB teams facing coronavirus outbreaks… it’s been a busy last few weeks, is all.

The news referred to in that first sentence, by the way, was the unionization of the NBA’s developmental league players. The G League’s players voted to unionize, with around 80 percent voting in favor of the move, and… that was that. Some of the silence around the story has to do with that, too. There is no protracted battle for recognition going on — the NBA itself recognized the organized union without a public fight or delay — so now there is just silence until the two sides meet at the bargaining table to discuss player salaries, health insurance, per diems, housing, and so on.

The G League players began their unionization journey back in 2019, or, at least, that quest became public knowledge then. Even in December, word was that the G League and the NBA felt this organizing was inevitable and therefore weren’t going to stand in its way. As noted back in December, in the above linked piece, things could get more confrontational when the two are actually bargaining, but “hey, that’s your right” as an initial response from a pro sports league must be absolutely mystifying to minor-league baseball players and the fans aware of how poorly that group is treated by Major League Baseball.

The thing is, this is the norm for minor-league sports unionizing these days. The situation Minor League Baseball players find themselves in is the exception. Major League Soccer’s minor-league, the USL Champions League, saw its players unionize without incident back in November of 2018. MLS recognized the union on the same day. The Pro Hockey Players Association began over half-a-century ago, before unions in sports were a normal thing, never mind minor-league sports. Despite this, in a 2018 conversation with PHPA executive director Larry Landon, I was told about the spirit of cooperation between not just the minor-league team owners and the players, but even the NHL’s owners and commissioner Gary Bettman and the minor-league players. It was, as you can imagine, a bit of a shock given the history of pro baseball from a labor perspective, but there is even video proof of Bettman praising the PHPA and the work they do to ensure hockey succeeds at all levels.

In that same conversation with Landon, I also learned that the owners most likely to try to stir up trouble — rather than work cooperatively to ensure pro hockey continues to thrive without it being at the expense of exploited players — tend to be those who used to (or still) have a stake in a pro baseball team. Old habits die hard and all that.

So, soccer, basketball, and hockey minor league players in North America seem to have, comparatively, no problems organizing into unions to ensure they get what they’re entitled to and have a seat at the table. Football is another story entirely, given their minor league is college football, which has its own set of issues to contend with, but MLB is the real exception here given they do have their own minor-league players. Ones who are too afraid of the punishments and exile they’ll find themselves under should they be caught attempting to organize.

What separates MLB and their minors from the rest of these leagues? MLS doesn’t have nearly the lengthy history MLB does, for one, as they were founded a century and change after MLB’s origin leagues were first putting down organizing attempts, in 1993. Just 10 years later, the MLS Players Association formed after the conclusion of an anti-trust suit (filed in 1996), Fraser vs. Major League Soccer, in which MLS argued for their need to control player salaries. The suit was unsuccessful — in short, MLS couldn’t monopolize a space that didn’t exist before they did, and they compete for players with international leagues — but a union was born, so the players still progressed through it.

As said above, the NHL situation is a bit more cooperative in nature. They’ve also had time to get there: the PHPA formed in 1967, one year before Marvin Miller and the MLBPA signed the first-ever collective bargaining agreement in pro sports. It’s not that there’s never been any conflict in hockey when it comes to organizing or bargaining, but the NHL’s minor leagues were also more disorganized than MLB’s back when the PHPA was gaining strength and numbers, so it was harder to put a stop to their coming to town, especially when they already legally existed as a player representative for other minor-league players. The PHPA began to represent various NHL-affiliated minor-league hockey players over time, and now they’re the representation for them.

And you’ve already seen how comparatively “easy” the NBA’s minor-league players had it, at least with the initial organizing. And yet, MLB’s minor-league players are bullied, threatened — even if just implicitly — with being released and blacklisted should they be found to be organizing, and MLB has gone so far as to plan to shut down over one-quarter of all minor-league teams, shuttering 1,000 player jobs, in part to teach the players a lesson about speaking up for the need for better pay. It keeps taking until the last day of the month (or later) for teams to commit to paying players a paltry stipend during this pandemic-suspended season. MLB doesn’t have to (and doesn’t) pay MiLB players to use their likenesses in video games. The pay raise MLB did promise for 2021 takes exactly one type of player above poverty-level wages.

The “MiLB” tag for this labor-oriented newsletter goes six pages deep, and this venture was started just last year.

That lack of history that the oppositional forces to the MLSPA, PHPA, and the Basketball Players Union — what the G League’s players are calling themselves, presumably to avoid any embarrassing naming ties to Gatorade when given their own choice in the matter – is precisely what makes life so hard for MLB’s minor-league players. MLB owners already had one feudalistic setup ruined by the formation of a union, and the Lords aren’t about to lose a second if they can help it. The NBA’s players organized a union in a world where the MLBPA already existed, where they had already laid some groundwork for the idea that players should be unionized. The NBA hadn’t been around nearly as long as MLB, and while the fight between the players and league wasn’t cut-and-dry, because the same lengthy history that bogs down MLB’s owners didn’t impact the NBA’s to the same degree.

That difference in history still persists today: an NBA developmental league is relatively new, compared to MLB’s century-long dominion over MiLB. The NBA’s present-day owners felt a G League union was inevitable, and therefore stepped out of its way to handle their differences at the bargaining table. MLB’s entire historical story is one of control: over players, over the sport itself, and it’s one Rob Manfred’s “one baseball” vision continues to promote to this day. So, there will be no stepping aside for MiLB players. In MLB’s minds, they own the sport, and they will cede no piece of that ownership to those they also feel that they own.

Labor vs. bosses is inherently adversarial, whether labor is always aware of it or not, but in MLB, historically and now, that adversarial nature has always been taken to extreme places relative to other pro sports in America. MiLB players can eventually figure out how to organize: the message of this writing is not to say they cannot ever get there because of historical conditions in MLB not present in other leagues. It just isn’t going to go the same way that it did for soccer, hockey, or basketball players, which means a new path must be forged in order to get a seat at the table.

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