Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 18, 2022

Solidarity Forever

It’s Week 2 of the NFL season, and just how many pundits had the Miami Dolphins doing a credible impersonation of the 1972 edition of that franchise?  The regional religion that is college football has already produced some stunners, especially for fans of Notre Dame.  The Las Vegas Aces, a well-traveled franchise that began life in Salt Lake City as one of the original eight members of the WNBA before moving twice, first to San Antonio and then, in 2018, to Nevada, outlasted the Connecticut Sun three games to one to win the team’s first league title.  Of arguably even greater significance, the championship was the first for a city that for years was considered off limits as a home for professional sports teams because of its association with gambling.  The Big Three of men’s tennis is, suddenly if not all that surprisingly, the Top Two, a reminder that the ever-ticking clock remains the ultimate arbiter of every athlete’s career arc.  Meanwhile, the longest season winds through its final month, the steadily shortening days of September mirroring the quickening pace of jockeying for one of the twelve golden tickets to this year’s playoffs.

The landscape of sports is full, with a wealth of stories competing for the attention of fans.  Yet amid all the heroics, the victories and defeats, the heroes basking in the spotlight and those shuffling off the stage, this week’s sports news with the most lasting impact did not alter the standings of any league, nor involve a crucial game or even a single moment on a field of play. 

Wednesday afternoon, a federal arbitrator validated union authorization cards signed by thousands of minor league baseball players.  With MLB having agreed late last week to accept that decision without forcing what would have been a perfunctory vote – a majority of minor leaguers had already signed the cards, far above the 30% threshold for holding an election – minor league ballplayers became members of the MLBPA, the association that has represented their major league compatriots since 1966.

While this year, like all others, will end with just one major league team being feted with a parade, it’s fair to say that 2022 will be worthy of celebration by every minor leaguer.  Even before this week’s organizing breakthrough, the year saw the settlement of Senne, et al. v. Kansas City Royals Baseball, et al., a class action lawsuit filed in 2014 that was the first concerted effort to improve pay and working conditions for the thousands of players who chase the dream of making it to The Show while providing sporting entertainment to millions of fans in small cities and large towns across the country. 

The focus of Senne was the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, and similar state statutes, with the plaintiffs alleging that MLB and its teams were violating wage and hour laws with their pay of minor league players.  MLB’s attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed was itself brusquely turned aside in 2020, a judicial decision that spurred this year’s settlement.  The agreement was announced in May, but terms were not revealed until July.  They include a payment of $185 million, $120 million of which will be divided among the members of the class action, as well as ending the practice of not paying minor leaguers during Spring Training or Instructional Leagues.

Of course, the union recognition opens the door to even more significant advances.  With the Players Association now in charge of the fledgling bargaining unit, negotiations over the first-ever minor league collective bargaining agreement are expected to begin later this Fall.

While the MLBPA is the right organization to handle the very heavy lifting that lies ahead, the rapid changes that have improved the living standards of minor league ballplayers in the past couple of years are largely the work of Advocates for Minor Leaguers.  The little nonprofit was founded just two years ago by three former players and a longtime trade union organizer.  From a standing start, Advocates forced teams and fans to pay attention to the miserable conditions that were a longstanding given of a minor league player’s existence.  Not just poor pay – at a time when the federal poverty level is $12,800, the median annual salary for a minor league player is less than that, and the minimum salary isn’t even one-third of that number – but also living conditions, including the absence of housing allowances or even the certainty of any housing at all.  It was Advocates, using little more than a relentless public focus on the issue, that forced MLB to finally require minor league affiliates to provide housing to players, starting just this year.

Given this week’s developments, it could be said that the work of Advocates for Minor Leaguers is done.  But as all those who have been part of the organization surely know, such an outlook would be the very definition of naivete.  The coming CBA talks will surely include fraught moments, precisely because they will be making precedent for this new group of unionized ballplayers.  That’s why it is especially good news that all the Advocates staff have accepted offers to join the MLBPA. 

Minor league baseball has been a part of the Great Game since its earliest days as a professional sport.  Against that timetable the progress since the filing of Senne, and especially in the past two years, seems to have come at lightning speed.  Despite that, further advances are never a given, and the only certainty is that the struggle continues.  Still, at long last, minor league ballplayers can join with their major league brethren in the chorus of the old organizing song. The union makes us strong.

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