Minor league baseball has long been notorious for its low wages and grueling working conditions.
But that could soon change, as players are on the brink of one of the most sweeping unionization drives that professional sports has seen in years. On Tuesday, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) announced that more than half of minor league players voted to unionize and that it is seeking voluntary recognition from Major League Baseball (MLB) to represent minor leaguers. If the league refuses, a National Labor Relations Board election that would provide a referendum on the state of the changing sports labor landscape is the likely next step.
Dr. Travers, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Simon Fraser University who uses a single name, said that sport has long been treated as a kind of “quasi profession” with different cultural norms than many other industries — but that appears to be changing.
“There’s an ideology of luck,” they said. “There’s this idea of, ‘We’re just so lucky, we’re so grateful to even have a chance at this dream,’ but if you actually look at what’s happening, you have a labor pool that is vastly under-remunerated, who don’t have the same protections that workers in other sectors do.”
Athletes across sports appear to be wising up. The U.S. women’s national soccer team won an equal pay agreement in their most recent collective bargaining agreement. National Basketball Association players organized around the racial justice uprisings of 2020, while college athletes are now being compensated for the use of their name and likeness.
The rise in organizing in sports has coincided with a massive surge in labor activity across the country, which has seen labor unions hit their highest approval rating since 1965.
Baseball, whose extensive and precarious minor league system is perhaps unrivaled in American professional sports, has been particularly ripe for collective action.
“Baseball’s minor leagues have long been a place of hyper exploitation, where ‘disposable populations’ essentially grind out a living under extraordinarily difficult conditions and where baseball brass, the people who run the sport, keep players in line in a certain respect through poverty wages,” said Jules Boykoff, professor of politics at Pacific University.
That is no exaggeration. While the average value of an MLB franchise is more than $2 billion, most minor league players make, on average, less than $14,000 per year — and are only paid during the regular season and not for work during spring training or the offseason. This is by design: in 2018, the MLB successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation exempting baseball players from the federal minimum wage and collecting overtime pay.
Groups of minor league players and activists have been organizing for years, but Boykoff said it’s no coincidence that the momentum behind organizing minor league baseball has crescendoed as the broader labor movement has grown in strength.
Indeed, the push to unionize minor league players comes as the MLBPA this week took a significant step to align itself with the broader labor movement and announced its affiliation with the AFL-CIO.
AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler pledged in a statement announcing the MLBPA’s affiliation that the union would “bring our strength” to the fight to organize minor league baseball, while MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark told HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson that his union wants to be “part of the broader labor discussion.”
The new affiliation promises to not only lend organizing muscle to the minor league unionizing fight, but to also situate major league players in the same union as a number of stadium concession workers represented by UNITE HERE, who have notably agitated this year for better wages and working conditions in places like Los Angeles.
The new alignment with the broader labor movement also comes as Congress has threatened to revoke Major League Baseball’s unique antitrust exemption for its treatment of the minor league’s franchises and players, which MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said would cause irreparable harm in a July letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In March, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced legislation called the Save American Baseball Act which would eliminate the exemption, saying at the time, “These are baseball oligarchs who, over the last year, eliminated their affiliation with over 40 minor league teams, not only causing needless economic pain and suffering, but also breaking the hearts of fans in small and mid-sized towns all over America.”
Boykoff said that federal legislation revoking the antitrust exemption could go a long way in shoring up labor protections for players as well as potentially protecting communities who value baseball as more than a means of enriching ultra-wealthy owners, as Major League Baseball angles to eliminate minor league teams and jobs to save money in the coming years.
Ryan Gauthier, a lawyer and professor at Thompson Rivers University, said that if the unionization push is successful and players win living wages, Major League Baseball may retaliate by contracting more teams, much as Starbucks has closed a number of newly unionized stores this year.
At the same time, that threat of organizing might make the security of union protections all the more attractive in an industry long sustained by players living on the edge.
“I think a lot of athletes in the past were very much, ‘I’m lucky to do this, it’s for the love of the game, thank you Mr. Owner for giving me my opportunity, I’d gladly do this for free,’” Gauthier said. “But I think a lot of players realize now: they’re workers.”
Abe Asher is a journalist whose reporting on politics, protest, and the climate has been published in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets.