Let’s break down the MLBPA moving to unionize minor-league players

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Late on Sunday night, there was major breaking news: the Major League Baseball Players Association was going to try to help prove that there’s enough support across Minor League Baseball for a union. They’re going to do this by distributing voting cards, per ESPN’s report and Evan Drellich’s confirmation, the idea is that, “The MLBPA will present the cards confidentially to the [National Labor Relations Board] to show both that a significant number of minor league players support having the MLBPA represent them and that a union election should be held.”

If you’ve never been in a union before, or part of a union that’s forming, the whole authorization card thing might be a little confusing. Essentially, it is a vote: whether it’s a vote that will be recognized by MLB and the NLRB depends on just how in favor of the PA’s representation and forming a union the over 5,000 minor-league players are. If, for instance, 75 percent of these cards are returned in favor of a union, MLB would be in a position where they should voluntarily recognize the union’s existence — essentially, the wide-ranging support would prove an actual formal vote isn’t necessary. MLB is unlikely to voluntarily recognize anything, however, whether it has 75 percent or unanimous approval, because they will want to wait this thing out as long as they can in order to hope that some turnover in the ranks of the players decimates support.

Considering newly drafted players now receive a handbook from Advocates for Minor League Players each summer, explaining the ins and outs of how they’re being exploited and mistreated, that might not be as workable a plan as it used to be for the league.

Which is to say that, if the support is there and is well above a majority, this is probably happening: MLB can only whittle away so much support with their delays and fear tactics, if the opening salvo of ayes is collectively large enough.

Only a 30 percent yes vote is needed in order for an election filing to be made, but a number that low would mean a whole lot of work convincing thousands of players to change their minds and vote yes for a union down the road. Simply getting a majority won’t cut it, either: MLB might not find a ton of success with fear, intimidation, etc., but if the result of this card effort is just 50 percent + 1, well, it won’t take much success to derail things, will it? Which likely means the PA feels pretty great about the chances that they’re going to get much more than a simple majority result here.

So, why else is this happening now, and not at some other time in the past? The support simply wasn’t there before. And I don’t even mean support from the Players Association: the minor-league players themselves who need to unionize weren’t unified enough to do so, and the PA can’t assist an effort that doesn’t exist, no matter how much money or power or influence they’ve got. Let’s go back to 2018, when I still wrote for SB Nation. In June of that year, I wrote a story titled “Why minor league baseball players haven’t unionized,” and spoke to people who would know, like former player and current lawyer and capital-A Advocate for minor leaguers Garrett Broshuis for the answer. Broshuis said that, “Fear is the predominant issue for players. When I was talking to players [about organizing], it’s not that they didn’t recognize the benefits of a union, but they were scared. They looked at me as if I might as well have been asking them to jump off of a cliff with me. They are so fearful of those owners, and what they might think about it, and how the owners might judge that decision to act collectively.”

Much has changed since 2018, however, and even more since Broshuis’ own playing career. The players got together to fight against their wages, their living situation, the travel schedule. Former players, through Senne v. MLB — which the law firm Broshuis works for represented the players in — won a victory that legally proved players have been mistreated and underpaid. The federal government, through the Senate Judiciary Committee, is exploring the justifications for MLB’s antitrust exemption, and doing so largely through the lens of whether it allows the league to exploit minor-league players. The players have already fought and won together without a union, and have come to the realization that they can’t fully achieve their goals without a seat at the table: MLB can hand them scraps and hope that satisfies the players’ hunger so that they can be left alone to gorge in peace, and that’s the best that can be hoped for without the legal powers and rights that a union would give these players.

The PA also did not just decide to do this on their own. They’re clearly working with Advocates for Minor League players and their information network, and have determined jointly that this is the time to get this ball rolling. Advocates’ executive director Harry Marino told ESPN as much, saying:

“The time is now because major league and minor league players let us know that the time is now,” Marino told ESPN. “It’s this group of players at the minor league level that have been pushing this over the past couple of seasons, and the major league players took notice and ultimately decided to take this step.”

Advocates’ employees, per ESPN, are actually going to resign from the non-profit and join with the PA to streamline these organization efforts, which is likely the best news you’re going to get as far as specifics go. These minor-league players need… well, they need advocates. To fight for them in the battle for the union and also after one is successfully formed. You can’t ask for a more plugged in and dedicated group than the one that has been a very successful and incessant thorn in the league’s side for 2.5 years now.

The time is also right because it is the wrong time for the league itself to fight back in the ways it might have wanted to. Contractually, MLB is supposed to keep the minors the size they are — which is to say, the size they are after the mass disaffiliations of 2021 shrunk the minors by dozens of teams — until after the current Professional Baseball Agreement expires in 2030. And the current collective bargaining agreement in the majors with the PA didn’t grant MLB their desire for the option to shrink the total number of minor leaguers per team in the next CBA — an option that would have made it very easy for the league to lop another affiliate per club off. Which means Rob Manfred can’t do his best Return of Howard Schultz impression and just start closing down teams full of pro-union players like they’re unionizing Starbucks locations, and especially can’t do that with the Senate Judiciary Committee breathing down his neck about the outsized power the 100-year-old antitrust exemption grants him over the minors.

That’s not to say MLB lacks weapons to fight back, but they have to be a lot more careful and devious, a lot less bludgeon-y, than they would have been had this occurred a couple of years ago or a few years later.

There are still a whole bunch of questions that need answering, but many of them are hypothetical, or for later stages of a process that is not going to resolve itself overnight. For now, this is a good start: there is a union drive occurring because there is support for one where there was not before, the PA brought literal Advocates in to help the process along, and MLB is maybe not as well-equipped as usual to fight back. You could see this all happening in slow motion as recent events have unfolded, but actually capitalizing on all of it is something else entirely.

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