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Unionizing The Minor Leagues (Special from the IBWAA)

By William H. Johnson (Special from the IBWAA)

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This article was featured in “Here’s The Pitch” the newsletter of the IBWAA and is shared with permission. This article was published in September 2022.

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For more than a century, professional baseball players labored as independent contractors, selling their individual services to their respective team owners (to whom they were bound, at the Major League level, by the reserve clause), each negotiating their own, unique compensation agreement independent of those of teammates and peers.


In the 1960s, Marvin Miller took the helm of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) and led the group to a collectively bargained basic labor agreement that has supported order-of-magnitude increases in the value of individual franchises for those owners, and also enriched the best players with multi-generational wealth unimaginable in almost any other field.


The Minor Leagues have always been an afterthought among both groups. For owners, they provided a labor and training pool that, despite extremely low compensation to players, was still so popular, and positions so scarce, that it has become self-limited by an annual draft since 1965. For Major League players, almost to a man graduates of that de-facto baseball bootcamp, survivors of the trials of the bus leagues, of crummy food, of apartments in small towns with four people wedged into one-bedroom units, and of a sub-living wage despite the relative excellence of their work, the Minors are generally a proving ground or gut check. If you want the big leagues, the thinking has been, then earn it. Be among the very best in the world at your trade, and suffer while you wait for a break that may never come. The dream has always come with a price.


Now, in 2022, Commissioner Rob Manfred has continued implementing the One-Baseball initiative to, ostensibly, create future fans by aligning every level of the game into a pyramid, a ziggurat with MLB at the apex. As MLB strong-armed the Minor Leagues into submission and eliminated over 40 small-town links to the big league game, along with 25 percent of the formerly professional players in 2020, the remaining players finally found a semi-quantifiable sense of their value. Those remaining had been judged of greater value than even those who were previously considered best-qualified. The streamlining process was advertised under the concept that fewer mouths to feed would mean higher quality food, and that One-Baseball might finally provide a modicum of lodging to the apprentices and an end to baseball’s annual “where am I living this year” scavenger hunt for the 20-year-olds. Still, the conditions can be improved.


One such example of that “room for improvement” came in early 2022 when it became more widely realized, especially outside of baseball circles, that those same Minor Leaguers weren’t on a team’s payroll until Opening Day. Spring Training was a freebie for the big clubs, and those apprentices choosing to continue to chase their dream, the chance they’ve each earned with their incredible skills, would not only not get paid for their time, but would actually have to pay some expenses for the privilege of generating revenue for the owners.


Into that world, the MLBPA has appeared with an offer to help the Minor Leaguers unionize within the larger labor organization and to bargain away some of the pain. This is only possible because One Baseball now has created a clear chain of executive control and a structure in which bargaining can occur. In the far past, each Minor and even Major League was somewhat independent. More recently, those lower-division clubs operated under a loose organization built on scheduling and negotiating team compensation with MLB. The fact that MLB, writ large, has agreed to formally recognize a Minor League union -- perhaps as a component of the MLBPA -- should not lead to the conclusion that all will now be streamlined and simplified.


The problem with unionization, at least for the workers, has always been rooted in their relative level of influence and pain (disincentives) that they can collectively inflict on owners should agreements not be reached. In the case of Minor League players, each of whom works for years in order to be scouted, vetted, and drafted, the willingness to sacrifice their golden ticket opportunity at generational wealth via occasionally-necessary labor stoppages, or to let others negotiate on their behalf, may not be viewed as a universal good.


With only 20 rounds in the current MLB player draft construct, in contrast with the previous 50-round marathons, there are as many nearly-as-talented players available who might be willing to break picket lines in order to chase their own dreams. The Minors are about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ascend to Major League Baseball. That so many have worked for so long under current conditions is evidence enough of the excess labor pool available should owners call.


None of this is to denigrate the idea of unionization within the Minors. It is, rather, a (perhaps paranoid) reminder that nothing baseball ownership does begins with a win-win vision. While MLB owners can be intrusive and obstructionist in baseball player decisions, dabbling in the technical realm of the baseball professionals, some of them have Albert Pujols-levels of talent in the arenas of finance and labor relations. The Minor League players need to be careful in identifying and protecting their real interests, and not let MLB or the big league union do their thinking for them.


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IBWAA member W.H. “Bill” Johnson has contributed to SABR’s Biography Project, written extensively on baseball history, and presented papers at related conferences. Bill and his wife Chris currently reside in Georgia. He can be contacted on Twitter: @BaseballStoic.


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