The MLBPA has managed to triple the minimum salary before

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For Baseball Prospectus last November, I wrote about the need for the Major League Baseball Players Association to fight to increase the minimum salary in their next collective bargaining talks with MLB. I’ve brought this up a few times since, because those talks will begin at some point in the coming weeks or months, given the current CBA expires in December and the regular season is slated to start in less than a month: it should be one of the primary focus points for the union, as it has the kind of from-the-ground-up energy necessary to ensure a strong future for the PA and its members, much more so than the current trickle-down-ish model where massive contracts for superstars keep the average salary up while, in reality, the league exploits young, inexpensive players en masse.

My suggestion was to triple the minimum salary, and the reasoning why that instead of some other possible plans, like reaching free agency earlier, is below:

The Players Association probably isn’t going to convince MLB to spend more money overall, not when they aren’t opening their books, not when they’re lying about the kind of debt they’re taking on during the pandemic, not when, since the inception of the league itself, the owners have done their best to keep money in their own hands and away from the players whose existence creates that cash.

Instead, the PA should refocus to shifting who the money is being spent on. More of it needs to go to those pre-arbitration players, so that they’re not being as heavily exploited, and in a way that also manages to reduce the paychecks of the players who already escaped those first three contract years to boot. It will likely boost what players make in arbitration a bit, too, and that’s to the good: ensuring that younger, less experienced players are making more money because of a massive baseline increase is more of a guarantee of success than trying to make players into free agents even earlier would be. If players were free agents after four years, it would likely just mean teams would bring up league-minimum players more regularly than they already do, with the richer teams likely to scoop up these now younger but relatively expensive free agents. Not that the lack of parity would matter outside of a given team’s watchability, not when half the league becomes postseason-eligible.

On the surface, and given the tensions and points of disagreement between the PA and the league, tripling the minimum might sound like an impossible demand to make. There is historical precedent, though, that I didn’t mention back in the column in question: I went with tripling the minimum salary because it made a lot of sense to me when I was mulling over the level of change that would be necessary for there to be an impact, but the truth of the matter is that the union has managed to significantly jump the minimum like this before. And they did so during a time that was even more contentious with management than they one they find themselves in now.

The last strike in MLB was in 1994, and it lasted into 1995. The owners were ready to use replacement players — scabs — in place of the unionized players fighting for a new and fair CBA, and we would have seen those scabs in action if not for now-Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor rendering a decision that told MLB they were wrong to use replacement players, and could not unilaterally get rid of free agency — or any other part of the CBA they disliked — despite their efforts to do just that. Sotomayor’s decision also included one major edict that ended the strike and allowed MLB to get moving on the ‘95 season, and that was to force the two sides to operate under the now-expired CBA while they worked on the new one.

The entire 1995 campaign was played under the previous CBA’s direction, as was the 1996 season. The two sides didn’t actually come to terms on a new CBA until November of 1996, and even at the end of those talks, it was unclear if an agreement was actually going to be reached. MLB had run through various negotiators since the previous CBA (which had been signed all the way back in 1990), and when MLB’s lead negotiator and Executive Director of the MLBPA Donald Fehr looked as if they had a possible deal, the owners voted against it. Fehr finally confronted interim MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and basically forced Selig to admit that the only one that should be negotiating for the league was him. With the excuse of middlemen not properly conveying the league’s and owner’s wishes out of the way — Selig, at this point, was still “interim” the owner of the Brewers and not an “independent” commissioner, so he represented both in an even more on the nose fashion than is usual for the role — a deal could finally be reached.

That deal included the minimum salary jumping from $109,000 in 1996 to $200,000: it was $150,000 in 1997, $170,000 for 1998, and then $200,000 for the last three years of the five-year agreement. The two sides didn’t stop there, though, as the next CBA gave the minimum a massive bump yet again: for 2002, it was increased to $300,000, and then given a cost-of-living increase to $316,000 for 2003. Since then, these raises have been consistent, but never quite as massive as during this stretch where the minimum salary more than tripled over the course of a few seasons: the current minimum is $570,500, which means it has barely risen more in the nearly two decades since the 2001 CBA than it did just between 1997 and 2003.

Thanks to Jon Pessah’s The Game, we can easily see how Fehr sold the importance of this minimum increase to the older players who weren’t going to be obviously impacted by better-paid younger players. The argument should sound pretty familiar if you’ve been keeping up with all of my minimum salary talk over the past few years:

…it’s important for the veterans to understand that the more young players are paid, the better chance older and well-paid players will have to keep their jobs. Make the minimum too low and owners will stock the end of their bench with younger players every time.

“You’re all connected,” says Fehr, who reminds players that their determination to remain united when Selig and the owners shut down the game was the major reason why management didn’t get the salary cap it desperately wanted.

I think Pessah (and even Fehr, to a degree) oversells the success of this particular agreement in the passages that follow this quote, since it opened the door for the luxury tax system, which is, in effect but not name, the salary cap the owners always wanted, and also allowed the league to game their rosters in much the way Fehr warned too low of a minimum would allow them to, but even more so. With that being said, Fehr’s reasoning for needing a healthy minimum salary is spot on, and relevant in 2021, too.

The PA might not be able to triple the minimum in a matter of a few years like they did back in 1996, but they should aim to do so. Even a doubling of the minimum would help, but if they aim to double, they won’t even get that. They need to go in strong if they’re to come away with anything in this realm, and remember that, if it could be pulled off back in 1996, at a time where the two sides so openly despised and disagreed with each other that they were using a CBA two years past its expiration because a judge forced them to, then they can figure something out in the present.

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