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How Minor League Baseball players can begin unionizing

Minor League players unionizing isn’t impossible, but it won’t be easy, either.

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Every summer, thousands of minor league baseball players toil away in small cities across America in relative obscurity, chasing the dream of reaching the major leagues. Most will fall short of this goal: instead, they’ll work for poverty-level wages, eat the unhealthy food their per diem affords them, sleep on air mattresses with five other players in a two-bedroom apartment, and buy and replace their own equipment. All of this for a dream likely never realized.

Unlike Major League Baseball players, Minor League Baseball players are not unionized, and the impact of that difference is clear. MLB’s owners aren’t about to hand money to minor league players to improve their diets, their sleep, their travel, or their lives at all. Minor league players, in rare cases, will become major league players, and their diets and quality of life can change when that happens and not a second before. The thousands of others who play Minor League Baseball each year are just part of the churn that brings those who do thrive despite these horrible conditions to the majors, and MLB is fine with that inexpensive arrangement.

The mentality of MLB’s owners just highlights the importance of organizing minor league players into a union, an act that has proven impossible to this point thanks to fear, geography, isolation, and more. Organizing is not impossible, though: there are steps to minor league unionization that can be taken, even if it might not feel that way given the enormous task of getting the players on board.

Will it be easy? Of course not. Unionizing never is, and minor league players have the added issue of not even wanting to be minor league players: They want to spend as little time as possible in developmental, and aren’t necessarily focused on the present so much as what the future and MLB has to offer. There are steps for MLB’s minor league players to unionize despite these inherent pitfalls, and each one will make organizing feel that much more possible.

Find a leader

The minor leagues are, in essence, a long tryout. They exist so that the top prospects have competition to play against — so that they don’t need to learn on the job, as it were, in the majors, burning service and playing time that could go to someone else who is already prepared to help their team compete. Beyond the obvious names you find on annual lists of the very best, there are also hundreds of other prospects and thousands of other players besides that hope to someday make the majors, too. And, to this point, there haven’t been enough of them willing to risk release and unemployment in baseball by unionizing.

There are players who have tried to step up and be a leader, who have attempted to organize minor league players — Garrett Broshuis played in the San Francisco Giants system, and before his career came to an end, after not only seeing, but living, the terrible, poverty-stricken conditions of minor league life, he gave organizing a shot. Obviously, it hasn’t worked out yet. That doesn’t mean Broshuis or someone like him can’t be a leader in the future: minor league players need to get on board with the idea of organizing and actually do it, but whoever is leading them does not need to be an active player.

In fact, an active player taking the lead is just someone setting themselves up to be removed from the game forever, as Curt Flood was when he challenged MLB’s ownership in order to earn free agency. His efforts fighting the reserve clause helped the MLBPA eventually dismantle it, ushering in the era of free agency, but the cost was his own career: since fear of that very thing has kept many players from organizing at all, asking one of them to lead a movement to organize might be asking too much.

Someone needs to step up, though. Someone needs to think of both the present-day conditions and how change today can benefit players tomorrow. In 2014, Lily Rothman, then at Slate, wondered where the César Chavéz of Minor League Baseball was. It was, and still is, a legitimate question. Chavéz was a labor leader, civil rights activist, and one of the founders of United Farm Workers, the United States’ union for farmworkers. He stood up for farmworkers in America, helped to bring to light their plight, and managed to organize a group of workers who had, to that point, historically failed to do so thanks to a lack of help from the outside, a lack of laws forcing anyone to heed the workers, or even state violence perpetrated against them to stop them from organizing at all.

Minor league baseball players don’t have the national guard breaking up their organizing efforts, but the conditions they live in are not universally known, their story not widely shared among the masses of fans. Congress’ recent legislation against them — an effort to withhold overtime wages from players who work up to 70 hours per week — is a reminder the law is not on their side, either. With no one like Chavéz defending the players’ interests, this was a battle MLB and their dollars were guaranteed to win.

A movement needs more than just a face, but someone who can actually lead a movement and guide those involved in it is necessary. The farm workers don’t successfully unite as they did when they did without Chavéz. The Major League Baseball Players Association doesn’t move from association to labor union without Marvin Miller. Minor League Baseball players won’t get to where they need to go without their own capable driver at the wheel, one who can convince them the destination is going to be worth the arduous trip.

Whether it’s a former player like Broshuis who truly knows the struggle of minor leaguers, or a labor leader from outside of Minor League Baseball as Miller was for the MLBPA, minor league players need their own César Chavéz tirelessly advocating and winning support for them. That individual (or organization) needs to step up, or needs to be reached out to by players, before anything else can occur: MLB isn’t going to budge an inch unless they’re forced to.

Find a starting point

Minor League Baseball, as a whole, is likely too large to organize. There are 256 teams with well over 6,000 players under that umbrella, spread across the entire United States as well as in Canada and Mexico. There are six different levels, such as Triple-A and Double-A, and within those, 15 different leagues.

That size is what, among other things, labor legend and the first MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller believed would be the issue with unionizing minor leaguers. Players are too spread out, with too much desire to make it to the majors to risk their careers talking about a union. And the minors have only grown since the 1960s when Miller first considered the question, as has the windfall from reaching the majors.

There is a workaround. Instead of attempting to unionize the thousands upon thousands of minor league players on the hundreds of minor league teams all at once, a more piecemeal approach could succeed. Let’s say the Triple-A level attempted to unionize by itself, or to be even more specific, just the International League’s players. There, you have a much smaller number of players than you would if you took all of the many leagues and levels and teams together, and the players, generally, have something in common besides the fact they actually see each other in games all season long: they’re very close to the majors, but are also in a league where the average age is is nearly 27. The end of the road is much closer for them than for the optimists in the lower levels, as is the realization there might be nothing more for them in baseball after this.

Broshuis believes there’s hope in this tactic. “What is an appropriate bargaining unit, that’s an important question, and one that can be debated quite a bit. Sure, you could try to bite off the entire system all at once, but you could make it smaller, too. You could go by Major League organization, you could go by minor league, too, where maybe you’re focused on just the International League or just the Eastern League. If it’s a bit smaller, it becomes more manageable then.”

That’s not to say 51 percent of the International League’s players can get together and announce they’ve unionized tomorrow without incident. There are potential roadblocks, even if there is a chance a minor league union built off this tactic would succeed. As Broshuis explained: “There would be legal challenges, as this is often a hotly contested issue. ‘What is an appropriate bargaining unit?’ The act itself, the National Labor Relations Act uses ‘an’ not ‘the.’ It sort of implies that there’s not just one correct bargaining unit, that there could be several different possibilities as long as you have a sufficient level of cohesiveness within the unit that you’re choosing.”

While it could be challenged, it’s also a situation where one league getting moving on organizing could compel other leagues to do so. The National Labor Relations Act bars employers from firing employees attempting to unionize because of their organizing efforts, but if there are just scattered players attempting to make unionization happen, they could be disappeared through trades or released for baseball reasons, depending on how their season is going or what the roster looks like — this is why fear of even discussing unionizing exists in the minors, because it could mean the end once you’re viewed as more trouble than you’re worth.

If all 14 teams of the International League attempted to unionize, though, well, nearly half of MLB’s teams aren’t going to be able to be able to move the majority of those Triple-A rosters to the other half of the league — especially as success in the International League can spur the players of the Pacific Coast League on toward their own unionization, especially because players in Triple-A are on the doorstep of the major leagues and are the depth major league teams need at any given moment in the season.

From Triple-A, unionization could move downward to Double-A, to Single-A, and so on. As executive director Larry Landon said about the Pro Hockey Players Association’s own organizing efforts over the years, “We were Triple-A, then we went to Double-A, and everyone said, ‘What the hell are you doing that for?’ Well, because the Double-A players become Triple-A players. And the Triple-A players are going to reach the National Hockey League. You got to start somewhere.”

This would take years to fully work its way through Minor League Baseball and possibly the courts, too, but if the end result is all of its players are unionized, they all have living wages and health care and teams paying for housing, then the wait will be worth it. Major League Baseball’s players formed an association in 1954, and it was 14 years before they signed their first collective-bargaining agreement: it took seemingly forever to get things right, but the payoff was undeniable.

Find external allies

Straight-up adding minor league players to the MLBPA is not a plan that’s going to work: it would die at the table in 2020 in Rob Manfred’s MLB, just like it died at the table in 1994 when Bud Selig refused to entertain the notion during collective bargaining. Plus, the MLBPA has had to and will continue to have enough to focus on in their own backyard, especially following the slow offseason of free agency and MLB owners effectively turning the luxury tap into a soft salary cap.

There have not been nearly enough people who believed in the unionization of the minor leagues themselves, but Don Wollett was one of them. A labor lawyer, Wollett wrote and self-published a book, Getting on Base: Unionism in Baseball back in 2008. Wollett argued an outside union could be the answer to minor league players’ problems, that someone like the Teamsters could swoop in and help organize the players and represent their interests.

The issue there — and it’s one Broshuis referenced in the Harvard Law School Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law — is there is no financial incentive for an outside union like the Teamsters to help minor league players unionize: there just isn’t enough money in Minor League Baseball to make it worth the time, effort, and initial investment. The labor movement beats the alternative, but it is not without its own problems in a country run by capitalists.

There is still a sliver of hope in this path, though, and it involves a union with an incentive to improve the lives of players. That would be the MLBPA, the same one that has chosen not to include minor league players in their own union in the past. As has been explained elsewhere, there are legitimate reasons, both during Miller’s time as executive director and afterward — but those reasons do not make it too late for the MLBPA to lend a hand now.

The MLBPA can help their future members, and the ones who will never be fortunate enough to reach that level, by opening up their wallet. It costs money to start a union, to keep a union funded, and the MLBPA — and its members — have money for that purpose. The PHPA’s Larry Landon thinks an initial setup and a stipend would do the trick: “I wish Major League Baseball players would see it and say, ‘You know what, these guys need an office. They need employees, they need to show that they’re organized so players believe in it,’ and maybe put a stipend in, each player each year.”

Broshuis, too, had thoughts on the MLBPA helping: “It wouldn’t cost, in the grand scheme of things, a ton of money to finance something like that. It does require funds, though, and other unions are operating in a tough environment right now, so finding excess funds in an already existing union might not be the easiest thing.”

There also exists the possibility MLB attempts to fight this uniting of its major league players and its minor league ones, even if the help is mostly monetary rather than through collective organization. Like with the idea of unionizing one league at a time, MLB wouldn’t necessarily win should they bring this to the courts, but the potential for a loss is there.

A third option for outside help — one MLB owners wouldn’t be able to have much of an opinion on, and one that might be necessary given Broshuis’ justified belief there might not be excess money floating around the MLBPA — is for a labor-friendly, former player from Major League Baseball to kickstart a minor league union. That might sound like a pipe dream, but think of it this way: if Derek Jeter can betray baseball’s working class by joining an ownership group to become management and invest in himself through the Marlins, why can’t Alex Rodriguez instead invest in the future of the game itself, the players?

It doesn’t have to be A-Rod — although that would certainly and neatly complete the public role reversal of himself and Jeter — but any player with a sizable bank account, willing to build themselves a legacy as the player who cared enough about minor league players to come back to their roots and right the many wrongs through collective action, would do the trick. Is that player out there? Broshuis hopes so: “Gosh, yeah, if you knew of one, I’d like to know about them [laughs].”

That player might be out there — you just need someone who feels the way about minor league baseball as Larry Landon feels about minor league hockey:

“When I took over as executive director in 1993, we had no money at all. I actually put the office in the basement of my home and worked 12 hours a day. We had to build towards this: we’ve got something very special. The staff, they’re all engaged, we don’t lose people. We’ve got four staff, they’ve been here probably 20 years. They take pride in it. It’s important that the collective group understands that we’re in this collective fight for them. We’re not here to win every battle, but to do what’s right for the players, and what’s right for the sport. And, as a former player myself, I believe we are custodians of the game.”

Whether it’s the Teamsters or the MLBPA or a lone savior, whoever organizes the minors is likely going to have to do this one league at a time. It can work, though: just look at the PHPA, or look at how the Players Association went from mere association to a full-on labor union capable of taking on MLB’s lords. The pieces in place to do the same in the minors might already be there, and they even have the benefit of invested former players who no longer have to fear being released to guide them.

Find hope

MLB’s treatment of its minor league players is a choice, and one that won’t be reversed until its players organize. That shouldn’t be a depressing fact: it’s one full of hope. The existence of the PHPA tells us minor league unionizing is possible. It’s not only possible, but it’s also necessary and effective. Recognizing those truths and seeing a better system is possible is going to be a key to this entire fight.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve seen the PHPA mentioned a few times already. The Pro Hockey Players Association has existed since 1967, and they’ve guaranteed their players not only have a living wage, but also a life after hockey to look forward to. The minimum salary in the American Hockey League (AHL), the Triple-A equivalent for the NHL, is $45,000, while the average is around $118,000. Players receive a playoff share of nearly $20,000, as well as full health insurance they can share with their spouses and families that includes counseling for drug and alcohol abuse. Throw in the career-enhancement program — Larry Landon, the PHPA’s executive director, told SB Nation 90-100 players overall signup for career-enhancement courses each year, 15-20 of them firefighters — and you’ve got a union taking care of players even beyond their time on the ice.

The per diem is also nearly three times ($74) what MiLB players receive ($25) — this is as good a time as any to point out that if a minor league baseball team has a pre-game spread, the players have to pay the team to eat any of it. And since the per diem only applies to road games, that means the MiLB players are paying totally out of pocket for food provided by their team that, presumably, does not want them competing on an empty stomach.

The contrast between the conditions minor league hockey players and minor league baseball players live in is stark. Because everything has to be collectively bargained with the PHPA, the American Hockey League doesn’t have the choice to treat their players like garbage just because it’s cheaper. And even without a union, minor leaguers don’t need to be treated horribly by owners: this is a conscious choice by MLB, and if you need proof, look no further than the recent increase in salary for the National Basketball Association’s non-union minor leaguers, who play in the G League. Players under a G League contract receive a base salary of $7,000 per month, for a minimum salary of $35,000 per year over a five-month season. There are minor league baseball players who make $7,000 for their entire season, and even the best paid of them all make just under $11,000 for the year at $2,150 per month.

Again, MLB’s treatment of minor league players is a choice. And one that can be combated by the players themselves, should they unionize and access the collective bargaining process the MLBPA and PHPA reached half-a-century ago.

Minor League Baseball’s players unionizing isn’t impossible, just difficult. They can’t necessarily expect to latch on to the MLBPA, not in a world where the MLBPA’s own problems exist, not with 50-plus years of not being part of the MLBPA behind them both. They could, however, find a leader, find the funding they need, then take this one league and level at a time. That should give them the solidarity to start this ball rolling downhill, where, like the MLBPA before them, it will no longer be able to be stopped.

Until inertia can take over — as much as inertia has ever been able to take over in labor matters — this won’t be easy. As Larry Landon said, though, “They’re going to have to realize you crawl before you walk and you walk before you sprint. They’ve got a long way to go.” That path isn’t going to get any shorter for minor league players until they start crawling.