Why the MLBPA hadn’t already organized minor leaguers

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You aren’t about to hear me say that the Major League Baseball Players Association has always had the needs of minor-league players in mind during their negotiations, but there is at least one persistent criticism of the union’s handling of minor leaguers that doesn’t carry much weight, and that’s the fact that they weren’t already part of the MLBPA. There have been reasons for things being split the way they are for decades — for the entire history of the Players Association as we know it today — and it’s only just recently that the environment has changed in a way where the PA could more formally lend assistance to the organization of minor-league players.

Back in 2012, Slate spoke to the PA’s first executive director, Marvin Miller, as well as Gene Orza, who spent 26 years working with the PA after being brought on as an associate general counsel, about the decision to not include minor-league players in the organizing of the MLBPA:

Gene Orza, who came to the MLBPA from the National Labor Relations Board, agrees with [Garrett] Broshuis on two counts: Unionization could help minor-leaguers fight back, and it’s very unlikely to happen. Among the many obstacles Orza cites is that nobody wants to be a minor-league ballplayer for long. Young players are unlikely to make noise while they’re trying to get promoted—they “don’t want to tick off [the club] by being the person who forms the union,” in Orza’s words.

Marvin Miller, the man who built the MLBPA into the powerhouse that it is today starting in the 1960s, agrees with Orza’s assessment. The 94-year-old Miller told me that he contemplated bringing the minors into the fold to begin with and revisited the issue several times over the years. The appeal of unionizing every pro baseball player, though, was always outweighed by a lack of resources, the geographic decentralization of the minors, and the dreamy idealism of the players. “The notion that these very young, inexperienced people were going to defy the owners, when they had stars in their eyes about making it to the major leagues—it’s just not going to happen,” Miller says.

The PA also was not in the shape it is today, in terms of finances or powers, when Miller took it over. Recall that the PA didn’t even have any of its own funding at first, because dues could not be collected until the season after Miller took over as executive director: there wasn’t any money in the coffers until the first licensing deals started to be signed. They weren’t even able to finance their own office out of the gate, never mind take on the monumental task of organizing the minors, as well. And as I’ve said on more than one occasion, consider the way MLB brutally fought back against the players that actually made them money organizing, with their willingness to shut it all down in the hopes the players would fold. They would have been even more aggressive if the extremely low-revenue by comparison minors had stood up to them in the era where the existence of the union itself was what much of the fighting was over. These aren’t excuses so much as facts, and considering that MLB’s own players had to be convinced of the need for a union that actually argued for change and better treatment even if it made the players feel like they were communists, you can imagine how much work it would have been to also convince thousands of minor leaguers of the same.

Broshuis, through Advocates for Minor Leaguers, an organization he helped found in 2020, eventually found a way to get things moving with unionization in the minors, but that doesn’t make the assessments of Orza or Miller for their own time periods incorrect. Especially since it’s not as if Miller decided against looping in the minor-league players and that was the end of the PA’s potential involvement with them forever. As he said to Slate, he did try again in the future on more than one occasion, but obviously, it was to no avail.

Part of Orza’s own pessimism on any organization of the minors likely came from first-hand experience in the years after Miller’s own time with the PA had ended: in 1994, the union, per a source in the know, briefly attempted to bargain with MLB on the issue of bringing minor leaguers into the PA. MLB responded by threatening to shut down bargaining until the request was dropped, and legally, they wouldn’t have been the ones in the wrong. The scope of the bargaining unit had already long ago been determined when Miller and Co. first moved the PA from its proto-union state to one fighting for a collective bargaining agreement, and the league had neither the desire nor a compelling reason, legal or otherwise, to open that issue back up. Bud Selig was in the middle of his scheme to goad the players into a strike so they could be blamed for anything that occurred afterward, and was still willing to interrupt that to ensure that it was clear that minor leaguers being unionized was simply not a subject that would ever be entertained in bargaining with the Players Association for even a second. The PA got the message, and that was the end of that.

MLB still has the power to say no to bringing the minor-league players into the MLBPA fold, but only when it comes to the bargaining unit that already exists. Because of the way the National Labor Relations Act itself words things, there are workarounds that would keep MLB from being able to deploy the same tactics as in 1994 again. Back in 2018, Broshuis explained to me that, “‘What is an appropriate bargaining unit?’ The act itself, the National Labor Relations Act uses ‘an’ not ‘the.’ It sort of implies that there’s not just one correct bargaining unit, that there could be several different possibilities as long as you have a sufficient level of cohesiveness within the unit that you’re choosing.”

What you’re seeing here, with the PA offering to represent minor-league players in a separate bargaining unit, addresses how MLB has stopped the PA from organizing minor leaguers in the past. And that particular tactic wasn’t utilized before now for the reasons that Miller mentioned a decade ago, and considered many decades before that: minor-league players needed to be willing to be organized. Thanks to Advocates for Minor Leaguers’ many wins in less than 2.5 year’s time, they’re seemingly ready. And now, the language of the National Labor Relations Act can be deployed in their favor, in a way it simply could not have been before.

  • If you missed it on Monday in this space, I asked and answered some questions about the PA’s attempt to organize minor leaguers.

  • For Baseball Prospectus (no paid subscription required, just an email login) I wrote about Advocates for Minor Leaguers’ existence, which was stuffed with gain after gain that got them folded into the PA and brought the minors to this moment in the first place.

  • Shakeia Taylor of the Chicago Tribune spoke to me (as well as Brad Snyder, a Georgetown law professor) for a Q&A to explain just what was happening with this organization effort, and how we can expect MLB to respond to it.

  • I’m not the only one talking about any of this, of course. The Athletic’s Evan Drellich interviewed Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell, about the process and coming challenges that the players will face.

  • Liz Mullen of the Sports Business Journal spoke with MLBPA executive director Tony Clark about the first 24 hours of card returns, which the union seemed pretty happy about.

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