Minor leaguers secure another win in Senne v. MLB

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The class action lawsuit, Senne v. MLB, has yet to actually go to trial — that won’t happen until June 1 — but the Senne side representing minor-league players and fighting for back pay has already racked up a few wins against the league. They won class action status in the first place in August of 2019, and had it upheld on appeal, too, in both the Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court. The latest W comes by way of a federal judge who declared that minor-league players are year-round employees, and are owed damages for not being classified that way in the past.

The Athletic’s Evan Drellich reported the news on Tuesday night, and included info on Judge Joseph Spero’s decision:

In his 181-page summary judgment motion, judge Joseph Spero of the Northern District of California also found that the plaintiffs performed “work” during spring training in Arizona and Florida, and that travel time on team buses to away games during spring training and in California during the regular season is compensable under law. The case, Senne vs. Major League Baseball, is a lawsuit brought forth by minor-league players in 2014 over player pay under various wage laws, including those in Florida and Arizona.

A trial is set to begin June 1, and the plaintiffs have already been awarded some damages. Spero ruled that plaintiffs are entitled to $1,882,650 in penalties on a California claim, and that they’re owed money on an Arizona claim as well, but that the amount would have to be determined at trial.

The judge’s finding that MLB is a joint employer along with clubs exposes not only individual teams to the lawsuit, but the central office itself.

You might be wondering why there is still a trial scheduled for June 1 if the judge is already awarding damages. The amount of the damages is still up in the air, as Drellich pointed out, but as J.J. Cooper mentioned at Baseball America, there is also the matter of MLB’s shoddy recordkeeping to contend with:

The court also ruled that players are entitled to penalties because teams did not keep proper wage records. The exact number of violations remains in dispute, but the court ruled that defendants are liable for $250 for the first violation and $1,000 for each violation that occurred thereafter. That would appear to indicate a penalty of at least $250 per player who participated in spring training in Arizona any time from the 2011 spring training onward.

All of this is significant. Not just that Senne v. MLB appears to be on track to be a major victory in the courts, but what that victory would represent. As I wrote for Baseball Prospectus in October 2020, the class action lawsuit had the potential to change the nature of Minor League Baseball for players from the past, present, and future:

In the absence of unionization, which has never truly picked up steam in the minors for myriad reasons despite the obvious benefits, Senne v. MLB can at least temporarily stand in as a platform in which players can speak out against their working conditions. It’s already managed to escape falling by the wayside despite Save America’s Pastime, thanks to a focus on state laws over federal ones. States like Arizona and Florida are home to minor-league players not just during the regular season, where they are underpaid for their labor, but also during spring training and in instructional camps, where they aren’t paid at all.

Precedence is so very key in legal proceedings, and if the courts decide that Senne et al have been wronged, then it will be that much easier for this current generation of players to say they’ve been wronged, too. Maybe we’ll just be stuck in an endless cycle of post-career payouts, or maybe MLB will be forced to concede even further, and maybe even realize that it’s less effort, and less costly to them, to just pay players a living wage in the first place.

MLB’s hand is going to be forced here. They’re going to owe money to players who aren’t in the league anymore, to players who are currently in the league who can argue they, too, have not been treated fairly or equitably, and from players in the future should MLB continue along the path they’ve chosen. The final amount of the damages will, of course, determine whether MLB decides it’s cheaper and more effective to just lose lawsuits sometimes rather than pay all of their minor-league players a living wage — think Amazon deciding that ambulances were cheaper than turning on their warehouses’ air conditioning — but there is pretty clearly a rising tide here, and one that’s capable of washing away the system that’s in place.

MLB has already acquiesced to paying for housing — though, that’s not without its problems — and the results of this trial might very well mean that things like a living wage, being paid to participate in spring training, players no longer having to fend for themselves for their equipment and offseason training and so on, might now be in the cards, too. Obviously, this isn’t all going to change overnight, as MLB will fight until they can no longer fight on this matter, in the interests of retaining their power over the union-less minor leaguers. But if the courts aren’t on their sides, and all of the lobbying they did of their pals in Congress to suppress minor-league salaries ended up being for naught, then they’re going to have to eventually admit defeat on this, or spend the rest of their existence in court or paying out settlements to players who bother to file a lawsuit strongly supported by precedence.

Federally, MLB is still in the clear thanks to getting Save America’s Pastime Act garbage shoved into 2018’s federal spending omnibus. On the state level, though? That’s where Senne v. MLB has been focusing, and now we have California State Senator Josh Becker putting forth legislation that would ensure improved working conditions and pay for minor leaguers playing there should it become law. The hope is that all of this has a domino effect — if Florida and Arizona end up being wins for the players, either through lawsuits or legislation, then MLB is in trouble considering the sheer volume of minor-league players ending up in one of those two states due to spring training and extended spring training and “offseason” leagues like the Arizona Fall League. California getting the ball rolling, given the state’s size and influence and the number of players who go in and out of that state in a season, is no small thing, either.

Things really do feel like they’re changing for minor-league players, and while it’s all long overdue, it’s also not quite solved yet. Senne v. MLB doesn’t truly begin for another few months. Becker’s legislation won’t necessarily pass. Whatever organizing is happening in the minors is best described as “nascent.” All of these efforts are still light years ahead of where things were in the process just a few years ago, though, and that’s good news for minor-league players, whether their careers are already over, ongoing, or yet to occur.

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