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It’s kind of wild to be typing this out even after having the weekend to process it, but Major League Baseball won’t be fighting the formation of a minor-league bargaining unit within the MLB Players Association. Instead, they’ll voluntarily recognize it, assuming the card check on Wednesday shows that there is, in fact, the support the PA says there is for this.
It shouldn’t be a shock that an employer is voluntarily recognizing in this situation, but plenty of companies out there do fight the inevitability, and MLB being one of them would not have been a surprise whatsoever. On the other hand, though, as I wrote about for Baseball Prospectus last week and in this space right after news of the organization efforts broke, MLB didn’t really have much power to stop this from happening if the numbers were there. Senne v. MLB determined that the part-time seasonal apprentice thing wasn’t going to fly as a defense against the players having the right to organize. Advocates for Minor Leaguers’ attempts at educating players on the unfairness of the Uniform Player Contract the second they made the switch from amateur to pro ensured everyone knew the score upon reaching the minors, so delay tactics for roster turnover wouldn’t mean a less knowledgeable player base. Not being able to threaten to shrink the minors again a la unionized Starbucks stores due to the new Professional Baseball Agreement and a lack of agreement in collective bargaining with the PA meant the most significant intimidation tool wasn’t in the toolbox, and MLB couldn’t risk forcing the issue with the Senate Judiciary Committee looking in on antitrust issues that center heavily around the treatment of minor-league players.
MLB was outflanked, basically, and this was the right call for them. Delaying recognition and forcing an election would have served only to further radicalize minor-league players and the public against them, which is not something they need while trying to keep up their whole persona of just trying to make things better for these players in the years after disaffiliating 40 clubs, i.e. taking professional baseball away from 40 cities that previously had it. I imagine commissioner Rob Manfred, with his background in labor, pushed for this to be the decision, even as owners ready to try to union bust wanted to fight. If it wasn’t him, well, I don’t really know what he was doing then, because again, this was the right call: so correct, in fact, from both a strategic and ethical perspective, that I’m surprised it was made.
The fear that once held these players back for years has been replaced by solidarity and the knowledge that they can win when they come together. They should all take a moment to pat themselves on the back for this, as there’s still plenty of race left, but they cleared the most significant hurdles after decades of no one else even attempting to clear them after looking them over.
Back in 2018, I wrote a piece for SB Nation detailing how minor-league players might be able to start the unionization efforts that to that point had never truly gotten off the ground. This was put together based on conversations I had with labor leaders in other sports, as well as folks like former player and current attorney Garrett Broshuis, in addition to my own knowledge of this arena. I was pleased with the piece at the time, but looking back now, after an actual plan has been put into action, I’m even happier about it. I’m going to use a few excerpts from that here to see how it all played out vs. how I suggested it could five summers back.
First, find a leader:
A movement needs more than just a face, but someone who can actually lead a movement and guide those involved in it is necessary. The farm workers don’t successfully unite as they did when they did without [Cesar] Chavéz. The Major League Baseball Players Association doesn’t move from association to labor union without Marvin Miller. Minor League Baseball players won’t get to where they need to go without their own capable driver at the wheel, one who can convince them the destination is going to be worth the arduous trip.
Whether it’s a former player like Broshuis who truly knows the struggle of minor leaguers, or a labor leader from outside of Minor League Baseball as Miller was for the MLBPA, minor league players need their own César Chavéz tirelessly advocating and winning support for them. That individual (or organization) needs to step up, or needs to be reached out to by players, before anything else can occur: MLB isn’t going to budge an inch unless they’re forced to.
It did indeed end up being an organization that stepped up, one founded by former players like Broshuis. Advocates for Minor Leaguers began with players MLB could no longer punish or instill fear in getting together to give the players the league could intimidate and threaten a voice. A place where they could anonymously voice their concerns, where the public could see said concerns, and where the league could then be pressured into doing something about them. The wins racked up by Advocates gave the players confidence that they could actually do something for themselves if they worked together, and that change was possible. And it also showed the limitations of this style of fighting without a union backing it up, since, for all of Advocates’ wins, they still didn’t have a seat at the table that guaranteed the players would have input on the changes the league decided to make.
Second, find a starting point:
There is a workaround. Instead of attempting to unionize the thousands upon thousands of minor league players on the hundreds of minor league teams all at once, a more piecemeal approach could succeed. Let’s say the Triple-A level attempted to unionize by itself, or to be even more specific, just the International League’s players. There, you have a much smaller number of players than you would if you took all of the many leagues and levels and teams together, and the players, generally, have something in common besides the fact they actually see each other in games all season long: they’re very close to the majors, but are also in a league where the average age is is nearly 27. The end of the road is much closer for them than for the optimists in the lower levels, as is the realization there might be nothing more for them in baseball after this.
Broshuis believes there’s hope in this tactic. “What is an appropriate bargaining unit, that’s an important question, and one that can be debated quite a bit. Sure, you could try to bite off the entire system all at once, but you could make it smaller, too. You could go by Major League organization, you could go by minor league, too, where maybe you’re focused on just the International League or just the Eastern League. If it’s a bit smaller, it becomes more manageable then.”
The sheer size and scope of the minors meant organizing them was always going to be a difficult endeavor, but Advocates found a workaround worth pursuing: rather than become a union or unions, organizing various minor leagues independently and piecemeal, they would become a subunit within the MLBPA. It’s not quite what I described in the piece, no, but it still rested on the same theory espoused there: that the wording within the National Labor Relations Act, that identified the possibility for multiple bargaining units within a larger union, was going to be the key to organizing minor-league players:
“‘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.”
Third, find external allies:
The issue there — and it’s one Broshuis referenced in the Harvard Law School Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law — is there is no financial incentive for an outside union like the Teamsters to help minor league players unionize: there just isn’t enough money in Minor League Baseball to make it worth the time, effort, and initial investment. The labor movement beats the alternative, but it is not without its own problems in a country run by capitalists.
There is still a sliver of hope in this path, though, and it involves a union with an incentive to improve the lives of players. That would be the MLBPA, the same one that has chosen not to include minor league players in their own union in the past. As has been explained elsewhere, there are legitimate reasons, both during Miller’s time as executive director and afterward — but those reasons do not make it too late for the MLBPA to lend a hand now.
The MLBPA can help their future members, and the ones who will never be fortunate enough to reach that level, by opening up their wallet. It costs money to start a union, to keep a union funded, and the MLBPA — and its members — have money for that purpose. The PHPA’s Larry Landon thinks an initial setup and a stipend would do the trick: “I wish Major League Baseball players would see it and say, ‘You know what, these guys need an office. They need employees, they need to show that they’re organized so players believe in it,’ and maybe put a stipend in, each player each year.”
Broshuis, too, had thoughts on the MLBPA helping: “It wouldn’t cost, in the grand scheme of things, a ton of money to finance something like that. It does require funds, though, and other unions are operating in a tough environment right now, so finding excess funds in an already existing union might not be the easiest thing.”
The PA did end up funding Advocates for Minor Leaguers, which in turn acted as the office Landon, the executive director of the Pro Hockey Players Association, had wanted to exist for MLB’s minor leaguers. And now Advocates and those players themselves have been absorbed into the PA, in their own bargaining unit, with their own lowercase and capital-A advocates to keep things running smoothly. The money the PA gave wasn’t hugely significant in terms of the amount — enough to pay the salaries of Advocates’ employees — but the amount that was given was the amount that was needed, and then they joined forces to help the cause even more directly, once there was actually a cause to join.
And lastly, find hope:
Minor League Baseball’s players unionizing isn’t impossible, just difficult. They can’t necessarily expect to latch on to the MLBPA, not in a world where the MLBPA’s own problems exist, not with 50-plus years of not being part of the MLBPA behind them both. They could, however, find a leader, find the funding they need, then take this one league and level at a time. That should give them the solidarity to start this ball rolling downhill, where, like the MLBPA before them, it will no longer be able to be stopped.
Until inertia can take over — as much as inertia has ever been able to take over in labor matters — this won’t be easy. As Larry Landon said, though, “They’re going to have to realize you crawl before you walk and you walk before you sprint. They’ve got a long way to go.” That path isn’t going to get any shorter for minor league players until they start crawling.
As said and as we’ve seen, they did find a way to latch on to the MLBPA, one MLB had to admit bested any efforts they might have put forth to stop this organization. It all began with the hope that Advocates for Minor Leaguers brought to these players, though, when their existence and success showed them that better things were indeed possible, that they didn’t have to exist the way they did in the minors in the present just because that’s how things were done in the past. Inertia eventually took over, and it’s because of what Landon said: the players realized they had to crawl before the walk before the sprint, and now that they’ve taken off on that run, not even MLB is able to say no to them.
There is still much to be done, but collective bargaining is its own beast with its own issues to sort out. Simply getting to the point where that is an option was what needed to happen first.
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