Minor league baseball players had more than just Opening Day to celebrate on Friday, March 31 – they ratified their first ever collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Major League Baseball (MLB) owners unanimously ratified the five-year agreement on Monday.
Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), the union which as of last year represents minor league players, is touting improvements to salaries, working and living conditions.
It’s the first-ever CBA in minor league history. Can you explain why that’s historic?
The MLB’s player union, the MLBPA, has been formally organized since the 1960s, and negotiated their first CBA in 1968. Since the beginning of the union, minor league players had never been considered for membership. Thus, when the MLBPA reached out to minor league players last summer, the about face was certainly unexpected.
Why the minor league players were never before included in the union is complicated, even abstruse. The MLBPA was challenging an organization committed to maintaining the entire breadth of its federal antitrust exemption. Expanding the pool of those eligible for union membership may normally be thought an advantageous trade union strategy. However, the MLBPA may have believed including minor leaguers would weaken their leverage.
Interestingly, the negotiated terms of MLBPA CBAs have always greatly favored experienced and star players relative to neophytes and journeymen, indicating the bargaining leverage with the owners is likewise skewed in that direction.
Union representation for minor league players is not unique to baseball. An ice hockey union –the Professional Hockey Players’ Association (PHPA) – has existed since the 1960s and represents players in the top National Hockey League (NHL) minor leagues, the American Hockey League (AHL) and East Coast Hockey League (ECHL). However, unlike the new baseball relationship, this union is not part of the NHL Players’ Association, the major league’s union.
Can you give some highlights of the new CBA for minor league baseball players?
First, the minor leaguers are a separate bargaining unit of the MLBPA, meaning there will be a distinct CBA. The major change is a significant increase i minimum salaries at all minor league levels. The length of time players can be held under reserve (not allowed to seek employment from other clubs) is reduced, in most cases by one year. The new minimum salaries are reported to be:
Rookie ball: $19,800, up from $4,800; A: $26,200, up from $11,000; High-A: $27,300, up from $11,000; AA: $30,250, up from $13,800; AAA: $35,800, up from $17,500.
Second, there will be policies directed at the more egregious reports of mistreatment regarding housing, transportation and meals. For example, under the new CBA, minor league players in their home cities must be provided housing units with their own bedrooms or receive a housing stipend. Spouses and children of players must also be accommodated for housing. Clubhouse meal policy will be improved, subject to a joint nutritional committee, and the per diem meal allowance will be increased. Transportation to practices and games must also be provided to the players. Second opinions for medical care and treatment will be permitted.
Lastly, MLB formally agreed that there would not be contraction of minor league teams during the life of the CBA.
What are the drawbacks of minor league players approving the new CBA?
MLB was adamant that minor league baseball be scaled back coming out of the pandemic. In 2021 the number of MLB-affiliated minor league teams was cut from 160 to 120. This contraction of teams means fewer jobs for minor league players. The new CBA does promise no more contraction. However, roster size limits will be reduced so that organizations will be limited to 165 players in season instead of 180.
Also sacrificed is the right to challenge compensation as determined by federal and state or local minimum wage laws. MLB settled such a class action suit, filed in 2014, last summer with minor league players, by which players collectively received $185 million. The minimum salaries negotiated in the CBA are not likely subject to legal challenges. MLB therefore had an interest in promoting unionization and a CBA for minor league players as well.
Can you talk about the MLBPA’s efforts to unionize minor league players?
The procedure followed standard labor law protocol for expanding membership and creating a new bargaining unit. In August 2022, the MLBPA reached out to all minor league players, who were invited to sign authorization cards formally declaring the desire for MLBPA representation. The cards were presented to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to show significant support of potential members for unionization. The NLRB by rule then conducts an election whereby at least 50% must affirm to establish the bargaining unit, and this has now come to pass.
How do you think this will impact the minor leagues and the MLB going forward?
I expect wages and working conditions to be much improved for minor league players. MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark stated last summer in his appeal to the minor league players that they encountered, “Poverty wages, oppressive reserve rules, discipline without due process, ever expanding off-season obligations, and a chronic lack of respect for minor leaguers as a whole…”
It seems these issues have been addressed and improved through collective bargaining. The downside is marginally fewer jobs for players. The major contraction occurred in 2021, but the new agreement does eliminate a few more roster slots as described above.
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