MLB hasn’t given up on restricting minor-league pay yet

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If you needed a reminder that Major League Baseball is disingenuous in their public desire to make life better for minor-league players, you only have to check the news to find it. They might have chosen to voluntarily recognize that the players had unionized and sought representation under the Players Association, and they have certainly spoken on how they gave the players raises across the board and are now paying for their housing, look at us, aren’t we just the greatest? But that’s just the surface level stuff: underneath, they’re the same old MLB.

Earlier in the week, we looked at how the league is trying to once again make it so they have the option of shrinking both minor-league team rosters and the number of teams themselves. And it turns out their behind-closed-doors activity doesn’t stop there, as they’re seeking to “clarify” with the state of Florida about whether or not they are required by law to pay players the minimum wage. This comes through the reporting of Jason Garcia, who tied MLB to Republican presidential hopeful and professional bigot Ron DeSantis in their quest to pay players as little as possible:

But last year, the league and its owners agreed to pay $185 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by minor leaguers who said MLB’s pay practices violated wage and hour laws around the country — including in Florida.

MLB tried to argue during that litigation that players were already exempt from the state minimum wage in Florida, where half of the league’s 30 teams have spring training and minor-league development facilities. But the judge presiding over the case rejected the league’s claim.

So now the baseball industry is turning to DeSantis and Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature for help.

To muscle the minimum-wage carveout through Tallahassee, MLB has hired a lobbying firm run by a top fundraiser for DeSantis, the Republican governor who is preparing a run for president. The league’s roster of lobbyists includes DeSantis’ former chief of staff.

The legislation was filed on Feb. 16. The next day, records show, DeSantis received a $1 million contribution from Joe Ricketts, the billionaire patriarch of the family that owns MLB’s Chicago Cubs.

As Garcia notes, Texas’ attorney general already said in a legal opinion that players were ineligible to receive the minimum wage, and MLB is also exploring whether or not they’re required to pay the minimum wage in Arizona — the other state where spring training games are played — as well. And all of this after losing Senne v. MLB, too: the league isn’t backing down from the decision, and are clearly trying to find their workarounds where they can so that Senne v. MLB is an isolated incident for them rather than the start of a real change in how players have to be paid. All MLB did was file a memo to the rest of the league allowing for the possibility of paying players during the spring and in instructionals — they didn’t say it had to happen starting post-Senne. As I wrote for Baseball Prospectus when the decision came down last year:

If past minor-league players should have been paid for their time in spring training, which was considered work by this judge, then what do you think that says about present and future minor-league players participating in spring training? We don’t have to guess at that, as the answer to the question became part of the settlement, too. Per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, “Major League Baseball will issue a memo that allows teams to pay minor league players during spring training, extended spring training and instructional leagues in Florida and Arizona. They had been blocked from doing so.”

Let’s be clear, though. This memo lifting the block is not the same thing as “minor-league players will now be paid for spring training and instructional leagues.” They very well might be, with MLB realizing that they are now very much open to future class action suits given what happened in Senne v. MLB, but it hasn’t actually happened yet. It’s likely inevitable, though, so long as everyone keeps yelling at the league about it, which has basically been the way to solve everything for half the league of the just-ended lawsuit.

(Once again, a clarification that the league did not block teams from paying players during extended spring training, but that there was ambiguity about whether it was part of the “championship playing season” or not, so the league just let teams decide that for themselves.)

Apparently, more yelling and shaming is required for MLB to quit sniffing around ways to get out of paying players for their work. What’s there to seek clarification for, after all, if your intention is to pay the players? MLB is seeking a loophole and hoping one will be granted to them. Maybe they are fine with paying the players, but are hoping to create a situation where, in order for the players to be paid year-round and in the spring, the PA is going to have to make concessions in bargaining to get that right in writing. Even if that’s “all” this is, it still goes against this idea that MLB is some magnanimous organization looking to ensure that things go well for their players. They’ve only given minor leaguers improved treatment over the past few years because too many folks in media and fans were becoming aware of the conditions that they toiled under, and it was making MLB look bad.

So now they’re actively trying to carve out an exemption in Florida, and will likely try something similar in Arizona. They can keep stalling in bargaining as long as they can get away with it in order to secure these little gifts for themselves, but I imagine that the Players Association isn’t going to be caught off guard here, either, and is already working on arguing against all of this. What seems clearer, given the week in news regarding minor leaguers, is that the quiet period of bargaining might be coming to an end.

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