Minor leaguers are joining the MLBPA: Here's what the unionization means

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Late Wednesday afternoon, thousands of minor league players became members of the Major League Baseball Players Association after an arbitrator officially validated their union-authorization cards and the league voluntarily recognized the union as players' bargaining representative -- the last step in the surprisingly quick unionization of Minor League Baseball. Here, Alden Gonzalez, Jeff Passan and Jesse Rogers break down how we got here and what it all means.

Last weekend, Major League Baseball decided to voluntarily recognize the minor leaguers' unionization. Why?
Within a week of the MLBPA sending out union-authorization cards, a majority of the 5,500 active minor league players returned them saying they wanted to designate the MLBPA as their bargaining representative. At that point, MLB understood it had two choices: voluntarily recognize or force the players to go through a vote via the National Labor Relations Board. Both outcomes were going to end up in the same place: with the MLBPA representing a unit of minor league players.

The immediate recognition of the union also solved a lingering issue for MLB: intervention from the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the league's antitrust exemption. Whether the exemption, or pieces of it, ever were actually in jeopardy is unclear. The specter of congressional involvement -- and the potential for grandstanding that Capitol Hill brings -- created a great unknown for the league. The issues about which the committee showed interest should be addressed in the bargaining process, nullifying the headache of outside intervention.

How did commissioner Rob Manfred make this decision? How involved were the MLB owners?
Remember, Manfred is a labor lawyer. He understands the mechanics of baseball labor negotiations as well as anyone, having bargained not only with the MLBPA but the major league and minor league umpires' unions. He recognized the stakes, consulted with owners and made a decision.

It wasn't made in a vacuum, though. It came with input and approval from the owners, who also understood the circumstances. Union or no union, significant changes to the minor leagues were coming after the league's $185 million payment to settle the class-action Senne v. MLB lawsuit. Minor leaguers, as part of the settlement, will now be paid in spring training. Teams must comply with wage and hour laws -- some of which, absent a collective-bargaining agreement with a minor league union, could have potentially led to Class A players in states such as California being paid more than Triple-A players in other states.

This is another scenario in which a minor league union helps erase a problem -- this one more logistical than anything -- that could have caused consternation for MLB.

What happens next?
After the card-check agreement reached Saturday, and the validation by an arbitrator Wednesday, the MLBPA is officially recognized by the league as the bargaining apparatus for minor league players. The union now can formalize its player-leadership group.

And come the offseason, the players, led by Bruce Meyer, the chief negotiator for the major leaguers' new basic agreement, and the league, led by Dan Halem, Meyer's counterpart, will begin negotiations on the first-ever collective-bargaining agreement between the league and minor league players.

Until then, MLB can no longer unilaterally change any of the terms or conditions of employment for Minor League Baseball. And until a CBA is agreed upon, all existing work and pay rules essentially remain frozen, said Eugene Freedman, a union lawyer who has followed the labor negotiations closely. Technically the parties could agree to interim policies, but that would hinder the leverage of the employer, so any significant changes are unlikely until CBA discussions begin.

The sides both prefer a CBA in place before the start of spring training. MLB could delay negotiations to force minor leaguers to take a lesser deal or maintain status quo at the start of the 2023 season. But the MLBPA would have recourse, Freedman said. The National Labor Relations Act requires both sides to bargain in good faith, and failure to do so constitutes an unfair labor practice that can trigger a bargaining order and an injunction by the NLRB's general counsel.

If that doesn't work, a strike is always available as a nuclear option, of course, though that would require solidarity from a group that exceeds 5,000 members, most of whom probably can't sustain the loss of employment.

What will minor leaguers be asking for in those CBA discussions?
Minor league players' chief focus as they build a collective-bargaining agreement from scratch is expected to be salaries. Currently, the vast majority of players make between $400 and $700 a week. They will look to multiply that number, and it's not out of the question. If you assume minor leaguers make on average around $12,000 per season and that there are 180 on the domestic rosters of teams at any given time, tripling that salary would cost each big league team an extra $4.32 million a year.

That said, other issues such as training facilities at minor league stadiums, meals distributed by teams and travel conditions could prove sizable during talks. The ability to write an entirely new CBA offers plenty of leeway for the parties to signify the most important things to them. For example, during discussions on a new basic agreement last winter with the MLBPA's major league unit, the league proposed having the right to alter the Domestic Reserve List, which limits the number of players who can be at a team affiliate or complex. Now, that issue is expected to be a part of discussions with the minor league unit, as the number of jobs available is specifically material to that class of players.

Why did the minor leaguers decide that now was the time for unionization?
Years of work culminated in a carefully considered plan that crystallized when the Major League Baseball Players Association offered assistance -- and a runway to actually launch the effort.

Though minor leaguers have been paid far less than a living wage for generations, the genesis of the current action dates to June 24, 2016, when Congress introduced a bill called the Save America's Pastime Act. Widely ridiculed for exempting MLB from minimum-wage and overtime laws when the league was already paying below minimum wage and offering no overtime, the bill died quickly. But it resurfaced as part of a far larger spending bill in 2018 and was written into law, infuriating players who already felt mistreated.

In the coming years, groups such as Advocates for Minor Leaguers and More Than Baseball would form and start leveraging social media to highlight the low wages and substandard living and working conditions of minor leaguers. The cancellation of the minor league season in 2020 energized the group even more, and with the MLBPA pledging $1 million to advocacy groups, the relationships between the two continued to strengthen. Continuous pressure from players on housing issues prompted the league after the 2021 season to commit to providing lodging for all players starting this season. That win illustrated to players the potential of collective action and expedited a more formal course of organizing in the last year: the emergence of player leaders who could serve as information conduits.

As MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said last week: "We have the right players, right time, right climate."

Rather than create their own union, minor leaguers decided to partner with the MLBPA. Why?
Starting a union from scratch could have been extraordinarily difficult. Instead, minor league players found a logical partner in the MLBPA. The union has experience, resources and legitimacy -- and with support from major league players, minor leaguers considered it their best option. Every minor league player wants to be a big leaguer, and being a part of the union that represents them is the reality that the organizing efforts helped create.

What do MLB players think about the change?
Sure, there will always be the older veterans who think minor league players should have to grind without a union backing them -- just like those players had to do -- but over conversations with more than a dozen players recently, ESPN has found the vast majority are in favor of it.

"I think it's good they have an actual leg to stand on," one veteran said over the weekend. "Just think about 50 years ago and what those players did for us and how much money we make now. There is no jealousy at all. I mean if these guys can bargain for better facilities, alone, it's worth it. No D-I school should have better workout facilities than a minor league team."

What are the challenges for MLBPA in this new reality?
Plenty. Foremost is integrating 5,000-plus new, low-paid members into an existing union that already represents 1,200 very well-paid members. Quadrupling membership invites issues in volume alone.

One common question: How will minor leaguers who make a fraction of what big leaguers do pay union dues, which are $85 a day at the major league level? The answer: If the players do pay dues -- which is no sure thing -- they'll be a fraction of the big leaguers'. For the union, a clear play to make up the costs is group licensing. Players understand that the bigger Minor League Baseball is, the bigger the opportunities are for the union to make money. In the same way that the union gets a cut whenever major league players' likenesses are used on trading cards, video games, apparel, they can bargain for this time around: The collective marketing power of the players -- especially those pegged as future stars and seen on top prospect lists -- should pave the way for plenty of deals that make the union's growth a valuable proposition.

What does this mean for the minor leagues?
The fear among some players and player-development executives is that any guarantee of higher salaries for minor league players will prompt owners to try to shrink the minors -- paying those salaries to fewer players to make up the costs.

The potential way to avoid that, of course, is to look for other places for Minor League Baseball to make money. Could that mean a more robust TV presence for the minor leagues? Or a renewed emphasis on minor league ball as the breeding ground for the future stars of the big leagues? Minor League Baseball is no small-time business; Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive just paid $90 million for the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats and their stadium. How does it become a better business for MLB?

If they don't figure out the answer to that question, sure, maybe fewer teams is the endgame. But for now, it's worth remembering that as part of its reorganization before the 2021 season in which the league got rid of 42 teams, the 120 remaining signed 10-year Professional Development Licenses with MLB that are expected to ensure they remain affiliates through 2030. Beyond that, negotiating the number of jobs on the Domestic Reserve List -- expected to be part of this offseason's bargaining -- would, at the very least, allow players a modicum of control over their employment. Faulty doomsday prophesying often accompanies change, and the death of the minor leagues is not imminent.

That said, considering how just a small percentage of minor league players make the big leagues, one could argue it's already an inefficient system in a sport for which optimization is paramount. And as a number of owners sour on the current structure of the minor leagues, the possibility of seeing them as a pure developmental product -- and thus wanting to assign even more players to complexes where organizations can keep their best instructors, rather than farm teams spread across the country -- is not an altogether-outlandish outcome. The forthcoming years will answer just how real of a possibility it is.