MLBPA backtracks, tries to unionize minor leaguers

NEW YORK — The Major League Baseball Players Association is trying to organize minor leaguers, overturning decades of opposition.

The players’ association said Monday it is circulating union permission cards among players with minor league contracts to form a separate bargaining unit from the big leaguers.

While the average major league salary is over $4 million, players on minor league contracts earn as little as $400 a week during the six-month season.

“The working conditions faced by these players have been nothing short of offensive,” union leader Tony Clark wrote in a letter to players’ agents on Sunday. “Poverty wages, oppressive reserve rules, discipline without due process, ever-increasing offseason obligations, intellectual property appropriation, poor attention to player health and safety and a chronic disrespect for minor leaguers as a whole (to name a few). ) – these cancers on our game exist because minor league players have never had a seat at the bargaining table. It is time for that to change.

On Friday, the union’s executive board unanimously approved the minor league initiative.

Clark was unavailable to answer questions, spokesman Chris Dahl said.

The signed cards of 30% of the minor leaguers in the bargaining unit would allow the union to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board asking for a union leave election. There are between 5,000 and 6,500 U.S.-based minor leaguers at any given time, according to MLB estimates, with the number increasing as new players sign each summer.

A licensing election would be decided by majority vote. MLB could also voluntarily recognize the union representing the bargaining unit, a process that can usually occur if a majority of the unit signs cards.

The Advocates for Minor Leaguers staff, formed two years ago, have quit and will work for the MLBPA. The union gave the minor league group $50,000 last November.

“This generation of minor league players has demonstrated an unprecedented ability to address workplace issues with a collective voice,” Harry Marino, executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, said in a statement. “Joining the strongest union in professional sports ensures that this voice is heard where it matters most – at the bargaining table.”

Players under major league contracts, who number around 1,200, are represented by the union which, since the 1981 strike settlement, has also negotiated terms for those on minor league options. .

MLB increased weekly minimum wages for minor leaguers in 2021 to $400 at the rookie and short-season level, $500 in Class A, $600 in Double-A and $700 in Triple-A. For optional players, the minimum is $57,200 per season for a first big league contract and $114,100 for subsequent big league contracts.

Additionally, MLB began this year requiring teams to provide housing for most minor leaguers.

Urged by the minor league advocacy group, Senate Judiciary Committee leaders said last month they were planning a hearing on the sport’s antitrust exemption.

Unionization could limit the ability of minor leaguers in future lawsuits. The Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Pro Football Inc. in 1996 that unionized industries were exempt from antitrust challenges.

The big league union had long refused to represent minor leaguers, despite its employment contract specifying amateur draft terms and signing bonuses for amateur players. There were 128 draft picks this year who agreed to sign bonuses of $500,000 and more, including 82 for at least $1 million.

The players’ association negotiated its first collective agreement in 1968 and has seen nine work stoppages, the latest being a 99-day lockout that delayed the start of that season.

Major League Baseball and minor league attorneys this year agreed to a $185 million settlement of an 8-year-old federal lawsuit alleging violations of minimum wage laws. A first estimate is that perhaps 23,000 players could split around $120 million with an average payout of $5,000 to $5,500, and their lawyers will split $55.5 million.

Chief United States Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero in San Francisco granted preliminary approval of the settlement on Friday and scheduled a fairness hearing for Feb. 17 before possible final approval.

Denise W. Whigham