Maybe things are changing in the MiLB labor landscape

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It feels like we’re close to something in the Minor League Baseball labor movement, no? Maybe that’s just my optimism for a better future for those players talking, but there is a reason I’m as optimistic about it as I’ve been of late. That’s not to say I think it’s inevitable, but where in the past I’ve thought, “yes, it’s technically possible for organization and unionization in MiLB,” it’s starting to feel like it’s a thing that could actually happen at some point.

For one, consider how much attention is being paid to the plight of minor leaguers these days. When I started writing about this regularly last decade, it was difficult to find stories explaining what was going on: with some digging, you could find some local news items that would quote Garrett Broshuis, or the occasional national — but one and done — piece from an outlet like Slate that outlined some of the issues. Now, though, we’ve got Advocates for Minor Leaguers pointing out the terrible living conditions and salaries regularly, and news outlets picking up those stories and exploring them further. We’ve got ESPN — ESPN, an outfit that is far too often friendly to the major sports leagues that they cover — publishing in-depth features on how horrifically broken the conditions in the minors are. The Athletic has kept minor-league conditions in the news, as well, and both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, which both had historical stretches where they were more concerned with efficiency than humanity,* now openly care about these labor issues and the world of minor-league players, and regularly so.

*Hey, I know this firsthand, I was with BP as my primary outlet back in the day, and freelance there in the present, too. We’ve all got some penance to pay.

Second, look at what’s happening in the world outside of pro baseball. We’re in the midst of a massive strike wave in the United States, the latest of which involved 10,000 John Deere workers walking off the job amid a contract dispute. The National Labor Relations Board recently opened the door for the unionization of “student-athletes” at the college level — not every college athlete, no, but still, at this moment, that door is open wider than it’s ever been, and real change is bound to come because of it. Hell, there is already a College Football Players Association, launched in July, and their timing couldn’t be better, considering.

There are already unionized minor leaguers elsewhere, too. The Pro Hockey Players Association has existed for so long that they held a 50-year celebration a few years back, and their existence hasn’t threatened the National Hockey League — whose revenues are much smaller than those of MLB — at all. In fact, the NHL thinks of the PHPA as a partner who helps ensure the player pipeline is full of healthy, ready-to-play prospects, and those who don’t make it to the top of the development ladder can find assistance getting a job in the outside world after their playing career is over, too. Things are a little newer in the NBA, but so is their minor league system: The G League has its own union, and it was immediately recognized by the NBA, too.

That’s not to say that the NBA is going to just roll over for the players and give them anything they want, but can you imagine MLB’s owners giving voluntary recognition to minor leaguers who form a union? Given the Phillies were just exposed for reprimanding their players for wearing solidarity wristbands in the final game of the 2021 MiLB season, it’d be dishonest to answer with anything besides “no.”

Athletes are not typically considered to be workers, but as more and more folks recognize that these professional athletes are, in fact, workers — a fact that’s easier to grasp when you start to see just how many pro athletes aren’t living lives of luxury, are having the wealth they created siphoned off by greedy bosses just like you in your own job — then support for their causes, for their unions, will increase. Most people who are fine with the poverty-level wages in the minors, and the horrid living conditions, are simply not aware that these players are not rich. They either think all pro athletes are, or are not aware of how small a percentage of the minors are made up of guys who were signed to considerable bonuses in the early part of the annual amateur draft. And sure, some fans out there are the by-your-bootstraps types, who think it’s fine if you straight-up torture minor-league players on their way to the majors as a way of getting them to pay their dues or whatever, but fuck those people. The goal is to outnumber and drown out the voices of those kinds of folks, and it feels like everything is finally getting to the point where those shills for ownership are going to be outnumbered and drowned out.

There is obviously a long way to go before unionization is imminent or anything like that in MiLB, but players are more vocal than they’ve ever been about the conditions there, and for the need for change. This boldness comes from the existence of groups like Advocates for Minor Leaguers, but the fact that the media seems to care in a way they simply did not in the past helps, and fans actually getting angry at MLB in response to the treatment of these players has already helped earn them one pay raise and some improved conditions. You didn’t need the benefit of hindsight to know that raise wasn’t going to be enough, but it was a proof of concept, at least, that MLB fears the negative public relations. As has been said in this space before, advocacy works, and so too does pressure. The combination of those two things, and an outside world that’s becoming more and more labor-centric by the day, might be enough to finally help MiLB’s players to bring about changes that are long, long overdue.

  • For Baseball Prospectus, I wrote about some potential venues for MLB’s next “Field of Dreams” style event.

  • This published a month ago at FanGraphs, but it’s worth checking out this regional view of the MiLB housing crisis by Justin Stofferahn.

  • Patrick Dubuque’s plan to let teams pick their postseason opponents must be implemented for 2022.

  • Hannah Keyser wrote about MLB’s plans to enact a coronavirus vaccine mandate for minor-league players. It’s an extension of the other mandates they’ve already extended to certain MLB employees.

  • Doug Glanville wrote a piece for ESPN on how he, as a Black broadcaster, could have responded to Jim Kaat’s racially insensitive comment from an ALDS game earlier in the month. Glanville went through a number of options that explained broadcasting etiquette, the pressure put on Black people by simply existing in these kinds of spaces, and more.

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