Senne v. MLB reached settlement, but the fight goes on

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It has been years and years already, but we finally have a resolution to the class action lawsuit that former minor-league players brought against Major League Baseball. Aaron Senne et al v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp, more commonly referred to as Senne v. MLB, was filed eight years ago, picked up class action status in 2019, had that status upheld in early 2020 in the Ninth Circuit, and then, later that year, had the Supreme Court come to the same decision. Then, in March of 2022, Judge Joseph Spero, who was set to preside over the case when it went to trial in June, made some preemptive decisions about it: he declared that the suing minor-league players were, in fact, year-round employees, and were owed damages for all the time they had spent not being treated that way.

And now, the trial won’t be happening, as the two sides have reached a settlement. The terms of the settlement are actually unknown at this stage — and that’s by design — so we can’t start discussing whether the amount the players will receive is large enough or too small, if it is notable enough to inspire additional lawsuits or demands from active minor-league players, and so on. There’s still plenty to discuss, however, even without those specifics.

The contents of the letter announcing the settlement are public, at least, with the Associated Press reporting them out on Tuesday, so here’s that:

The parties are pleased to inform the Court that they have reached a settlement of the matter in principle. The parties have agreed upon a confidential memorandum of understanding. The settlement is subject to ratification by the respective parties, and we are in the process of preparing the settlement documents. In light of the parties’ settlement in principle:

1. The parties respectfully request that the Court adjourn the initial pre-trial conference scheduled for May 10, 2022, the trial scheduled to begin on June 1, 2022, and all related trial proceedings and submissions.

2. Plaintiffs respectfully request until July 11, 2022 to file their motion for preliminary approval of the settlement. We thank the Court for its consideration of the parties’ request.

Here’s the first takeaway worth considering, basically whenever there is a settlement: you don’t reach a settlement if you’re innocent. MLB has been exploiting minor leaguers for decades and decades, and only more so as time went on and the league worked the connections it could to ensure that pay stayed low. The federal minimum wage is stagnant, and has been for some time, to the point that the national Fight For $15 campaign has gone from representing a number that would help people to one that is nowhere near enough to constitute a living wage. MLB was happy to just let that one ride while no one was paying attention, and then the Save America’s Pastime Act ethos was shoved into a federal spending omnibus to secure MLB’s right to keep paying as little as legally possible to these players.

Players have become more outspoken, though, media has spent more time detailing the plight of those players, and fans have realized that most minor-league players aren’t wealthy and are also never going to become wealthy. MLB overreached, as is their way, and now they find themselves having to settle with former players at the same time they’re fending off the demands of active players for housing as well as higher and year-round pay — the last of which was certainly inspired by the successes of Senne v. MLB.

So, settling is MLB admitting that this particular path is no longer going to work for them. Not because they’ve realized the error of their ways, but because the world apparently is not going to just let them have this one anymore. There is a downside to this, too, though: MLB will surely be seeking new ways to withhold what belongs to their labor force from them, and if the terms of the settlement remain undisclosed, it’s only going to help them along in this goal.

Consider, for a moment, that the last bit of collusion successfully identified and punished in MLB wasn’t from the 1980s, which is the round — well, rounds — of collusion that you often read about, including in this space. MLB actually had a collusion grievance filed against them by the MLBPA because of the league’s actions during 2002 and 2003, but rather than have this decided by an arbitrator like with the cases from the 80s, the two sides agreed to MLB paying $12 million to the players as part of the 2006 collective bargaining agreement. MLB never admitted that their teams colluded against the players, but they did pay them $12 million, so, you know. Settling is an admission of guilt, even if it’s not an explicit one.

MLB would dedicate themselves to not needing to collude anymore, and instead, set about ensuring that the structure under which teams operated simply looked a lot like collusion and its intended effects. Similarly, MLB didn’t want to pay minor-league players more, but was put in a position where they had to, so the raise players received for the 2021 season came alongside the loss of 40 teams, a shrinking of the minors that served as both a way to cut costs and a way to threaten the remaining players into silence about their working conditions. The players have kept pushing, however, and that’s what they’re going to need to keep doing now that Senne v. MLB shifts into the past tense.

Whether the terms of the settlement are known or not, MLB has implicitly admitted that their treatment of minor-league players is unfair. More lawsuits need to be filed, more pressure needs to be applied, more organization needs to occur, until MLB is forced to answer for their structural problems that benefit them at the expense of the players. Until minor-league players are fed meals that you don’t need to squint at to consider it food, until they are housed in a way that fits their needs, until they are paid for all of the work they do, year-round, and at a rate commensurate with a living wage instead of one that leaves them in poverty. The settlement of Senne v. MLB is simply a step on a much longer road, and players past, present, and future need to keep traversing it.

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