Mailbag: Separate bargaining units, salary floor

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Mailbag time. If you have a mailbag question you’d like to see answered, either respond to this newsletter email, or hit me up on @Marc_Normandin on Twitter. Let’s get to it.

Why establish them [minor leaguers] as a separate bargaining unit (one for MLB, one for MiLB)? Was there ever a path to adding them into the existing bargaining unit with Armour-Globe? Would that have been better / worse? Couldn’t it help MLBPA with service time manipulation issues if they were able to have them all in one bargaining unit? -B

The answer to the second question also answers your first: there wasn’t a path for adding minor-league players into the existing bargaining unit, which is part of why (but certainly not all of why) those players weren’t already organized. It’s entirely possible that one larger unit could work out better for items like service-time manipulations, since minor-league players far outnumber their MLB roster brethren and could force the issue there with sheer volume, but that they’re under the same roof should more than suffice. As I’ve said before, I’d feel differently if the Advocates for Minor Leaguer folks weren’t there in the MLBPA to small-a advocate for minor-league players, but they are, so I’m happy to see how this all plays out rather than assuming the worst is on the way. Which speaks much more to how much I respect what Advocates managed in their brief but dense existence than it does to my baseline attitudes.

As for why there wasn’t a path, let’s dig into MLB’s history a little bit. Legendary MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller considered trying to add minor-league players to the union in its early days, but felt there were simply too many obstacles to overcome — namely, the act of organizing the players themselves, as spread out as they were geographically in a world that didn’t yet have the technology to effectively shrink that distance and keep communication instantaneous regardless of distance. And there’s also how much the players themselves were focused on simply getting to the bigs: the usefulness of a union in sports hadn’t yet been proven, and it was difficult enough to convince the MLB players in one that it was worth fighting the battles they were destined to have.

This decision was logical for the time, but it also set the expectations for just which professional players under the MLB umbrella were part of the union. The league could not be forced into expanding the bargaining unit further — attempts to do so in 1994 were met with stiff resistance, with then-interim commissioner Bud Selig threatening to shut down bargaining if the PA persisted with the request. And he would have been legally protected in doing so, as well, since there was no requirement for MLB to open that issue back up. The players could have decided to strike over the issue of minor leaguers joining the PA, but it’s likely they would have been the ones being scolded by a judge down the line instead of the league, if they had shut it all down for something they had no rights to.

That left the eventual formation of a separate bargaining unit, which could have been done in the minors exclusively — think a unit for Triple-A players, one for Double-A players, and so on, all under one larger umbrella like how the Pro Hockey Players Association operates — or for the minor-league players to organize under the banner of the existing MLBPA as their own unit. They chose the latter, which makes a whole lot of sense — chances are good MLB would have tried to drag things out for a much longer time in order to delay or break the organizing efforts if the players had tried to do all of this without the PA’s backing.


Not to be the “here’s one weird trick that no one noticed but me” guy, but why didn’t/doesn’t the MLBPA lean more into a salary floor as a negotiating goal? Every team has to spend X on MLB player salaries, and if they don’t they write a check for the difference to MLBPA or whoever.

It seems like all the efforts to get individual categories of players paid in many ways creates opportunities for owners to seek out categories of players who are covered less well and use those. Squeezing the balloon etc. instead of backstopping the whole system.

The only time I’ve seen it addressed, the position has been “We don’t believe in a floor or a cap,” as if the union is somehow required to be perfectly logically consistent or it loses logic points from the logic referee, or something.

Does arguing for a floor put them in some weird NLRB space I’m not appreciating? Do they just believe the owners are so opposed that they’d burn everything down before they’d consider it? Or am I misunderstanding how much the winning-indifference of quote “small market” teams affects the overall payout? -Matt

Salary floors are a tough one. Earlier in the year, I advocated for a salary floor being a priority in the next collective bargaining sessions between the (major league portion of the) Players Association and the league, but had a followup saying that a salary floor shouldn’t be fought for at any cost. Everything you’re saying about creating different classes of players just gives the owners opportunities to exploit one of them to maximum effect, loading up their roster with low-cost players, etc. But we’re kind of stuck with that reality, though, it can be messed with on the margins by doing things like rapidly raising the league-minimum. The league-minimum salary that was negotiated into the new CBA might not be quite as high as I think it should be, but there’s no denying that it was still a massive jump in a lot of ways.

The reason salary floors are such an obvious solution but one that we are unlikely to see is that MLB also wants a salary floor, but for very different reasons than the union. MLB wants a floor because they also want a cap, but even if they agree to a floor without a cap, they would leverage it in such a way that it would serve to reinforce the luxury tax threshold that currently serves as an unofficial cap for most of the league. MLB would surely lean heavily on increasing revenue-sharing payouts to the so-called small-market teams under a floor, because they like to pretend teams like the Pirates simply can’t survive if they actually try to win by spending, which means clubs like the Yankees could cry about losing even more revenue to the competition, giving them additional reasons to not blow past the luxury tax threshold. Which also means that anything that I personally would want to exist in a salary floor — penalties as harsh, if not harsher, than those levied on teams for exceeding the luxury tax — wouldn’t exist, because the league would have other ideas as to the utility of a salary floor. That’s not a situation that the PA wants to allow to exist, which is why there is no real traction in salary floor talks, even when both sides say they’d like one.

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