US Senators ask Rob Manfred and MLB to explain this spring’s anti-labor action

MLB’s support of a wage-suppressing exemption to a state law in Florida hasn’t gone unnoticed by the federal government.

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With the unionization of minor leaguers voluntarily recognized by Major League Baseball this past spring, the federal government seemed to slow down its questioning of the league and its motives with regards to labor and potential abuse of their antitrust exemption. The questions aren’t completely gone, however, as three senators — Richards Durbin and Blumenthal, as well as John Hickenlooper — sent a letter to the league seeking clarification on why MLB would say one thing and do another.

The issue in question is the league’s support for an exemption to Florida’s state wage and hour laws. Which, if you’ll recall, is something MLB put in for back in March even as they were voluntarily recognizing the union (original reporting by Jason Garcia). These three senators want to know why MLB is pursuing laws that “appear to significantly undermine the agreement,” where the agreement is the collective bargaining agreement ratified by both the Major League Baseball Players Association and the league itself.

Here’s the text of the body of the letter in full, as it’s all necessary to understand how things are supposed to be against how they actually could be thanks to the league’s support of S.B. 892, which is now law in Florida:

Dear Commissioner Manfred:

On March 31, 2023, over 99 percent of Minor League players voted to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with Major League Baseball (MLB). Days later, on April 3, Major League Baseball’s owners voted unanimously to ratify the CBA. The CBA, the first between MLB and Minor League players, was the result of negotiations that began after Minor League players officially unionized in September 2022, joining the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA).

Among its provisions, the historic agreement includes significant pay increases for Minor League players that more than double previous baseline annual salaries; improves health and retirement benefits; and guarantees that the league will not contract the Minor Leagues during the term of the CBA.

The agreement also includes a provision that states that the MLBPA will agree to execute and send a joint letter to “lawmakers/regulators” at the request of the Office of the Commissioner “to express our joint support for legislation that would provide a narrowly tailored exemption from wage and hour laws…that otherwise could apply to Players, in deference to the compensation and benefit provisions of the new [CBA]…provided the exemption would only apply to Players during the period in which they are compensated pursuant to the terms of the CBA.” This provision comes in the aftermath of MLB’s $185 million settlement in the Senne class-action lawsuit that alleged violations of state and federal wage and hour laws. MLB and the MLBPA have sent or are exploring sending such joint letters to state government officials in California, Arizona, New York, Washington, and North Carolina.

Notably, MLB and the MLBPA have not sent one of these joint letters to state government officials in Florida. Rather, while representatives of MLB and the MLBPA were negotiating the CBA for Minor League players, MLB was lobbying the Florida legislature to pass a bill, S.B. 892, that exempts Minor League players from the state’s minimum wage and maximum hour laws. Unlike the legislation MLB and the MLBPA agreed to jointly support, this exemption will apply regardless of whether players are being compensated pursuant to the terms of a CBA. This bill was passed by the state legislature in May and approved by the governor in June.

These efforts by MLB to pass a broad exemption from state wage and hour laws in Florida appear to significantly undermine the agreement MLB entered into with the MLBPA and put at risk the gains made by Minor League players to finally earn a living wage. Florida plays an outsized role in the training and development of Minor League players. The state is the Spring Training home to half of MLB’s 30 clubs, half its Complex League teams, and 12 additional Minor League teams. In the absence of a future CBA, players for one of the 25 Florida teams in the Florida Complex and Low-A Southeast Leagues—who rank among the lowest-paid players in baseball—would be vulnerable to S.B. 892. This new law provides an exemption from the state’s minimum wage and maximum hour requirements as long as the player’s contract provides for a weekly salary during the league’s “championship season”—which does not include Spring Training of the offseason—at a rate that is not less than the minimum wage in the state for a workweek of 40 hours, irrespective of the number of hours the player actually works. In short, under Florida’s current minimum wage and the Complex League’s 16-week “championship season,” as long as MLB paid a Complex League player $7,680, they would not run afoul of the state’s law. This would be less than 40 percent of the minimum annual salary a Complex League player makes under the current CBA.

MLB and the MLBPA have made great strides in the past year to improve Minor League players’ wages and working conditions. We ask that you provide answers to the following questions by November 28, 2023. Your answers will help inform our understanding of your commitment to ensure the progress made in the past year continues.

  1. Why did MLB advocate for the passage of S.B. 892 while it was simultaneously negotiating a CBA providing for MLB and the MLBPA jointly to ask for only a conditional exemption from wage and hour laws?

  2. Does MLB plan to send a joint letter to Florida lawmakers to ask for an amendment to S.B. 892 establishing only a narrowly tailored exemption from wage and hour laws like the letter provided for in the CBA and sent to other states? If not, why not?

  3. Would MLB support federal legislation that would provide a narrowly tailored exemption from wage and hour laws that would only apply to players during the period in which they are compensated pursuant to the terms of a CBA, as the agreed upon letter in the current CBA with the MLBPA indicates? If not, why not?

We appreciate your attention to this timely issue and look forward to working with you to ensure that players, communities, and fans can continue to enjoy America’s pastime.

MLB obviously hasn’t answered just yet, but you know when they do that it’s going to be some high-grade bullshit. The last time he had to answer some questions that the Senate Judiciary Committee investigating MLB’s treatment of minor leaguers and the use of their antitrust exemption asked him, I ended up writing an article headline, “No one is buying Rob Manfred’s letter to Congress” a couple of weeks after penning, “Rob Manfred is lying about Minor League compensation (again).” Suffice to say I’m very excited to see what he comes up with in response to these questions designed to put MLB and their grand plans for support of S.B. 892 on the spot.

These three senators have clearly understood that the league wants to rewind the clock in their most significant state for minor leaguers and minor league pay, and are hoping to use S.B. 892 to do so in some fashion, whether it’s for leverage in the next CBA, or to ensure that a significant chunk of the minor league populace is suffering, compensation-wise, when the CBA expires and MLB has decided to play hardball like they just did with the big leaguers, forcing agreement on a new CBA to come well after that expiration date. Which would, in theory at least, create a bit of a wedge that has some players more desperate for an agreement to be made than others.

As I said, I’m looking forward to seeing how Manfred tries to wriggle out of this one. He’s not very good at lying, but that’s why it’s great that he’s been reelected as commissioner.

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