How far are MLB players willing to go for their minor league counterparts?

How far are MLB players willing to go for their minor league counterparts?


The MLBPA announced yesterday that it will look to unionize minor league players.
Illustration: Shutterstock

Before I get tossed in the same bin with Buster Olney or Jeff Passan or some other water-carrying stooge for MLB owners, let me scratch and claw for escape from that right off the bat. The MLBPA reaching out to minor league players, and starting the process to welcome them into the union, is a very good thing. Clearly minor leaguers have been exploited and treated to heinous conditions, which even on one level is extremely strange because you’d think MLB would want its prized prospects, now the game’s main currency, developed in the most beneficial and supportive atmosphere possible. Maybe that’s easier when you’re football and basketball and you get it for free in the college ranks with their training facilities worth hundreds of millions of dollars that someone else pays for. BUT THAT’S NOT WHY YOU CALLED.

Clearly, the MLBPA and the Advocates for Minor Leaguers — who now work for the MLBPA straight away — sensed an opportunity here. It is unlikely that the Players Association would be sending out authorization cards if they didn’t have some feeling that it would be met with mass approval. Baseball players are rock stupid as we know, look at those unable to get to Toronto to do their jobs as evidence, and come from a lot of places hostile to the idea of unions. But given the mass coverage of the conditions they’ve faced in recent years, the settling of a couple of lawsuits where MLB pretty much admitted they’d been screwing minor leaguers over, and Rob Manfred’s continued incomprehensible intransigence, and the window is clearly open now.

But still, with the process starting, there are some questions that will take some time to answer. And the MLB’s CBA expiring in just five years will play a role for sure.

For one, and we’ll only find out if minor leaguers ratify union representation, is whether they will be something of a separate branch of the MLBPA or will they be one block. It’s hard to fathom how the latter will happen or how that would work, but even if the former becomes the reality they will still be linked. And the MLB players may have to do things for their minor league comrades.

The most out-there scenario that could come down the pike is what if negotiations for the MiLB players get rocky, which they always seem to do with Rob “I Love This Game” Manfred. If MiLB players go on strike, will the Major Leaguers join them? Can they? They have their own CBA, so they probably can’t.

Also, minor leaguers don’t have the same kind of work-stopping leverage. Sitting out isn’t really going to hurt Major League owners, but it will hurt the individual owners of the minor league teams, whom they aren’t negotiating with. How do you win a work stoppage like that? And if a work stoppage isn’t really in the holster, what’s your leverage?

Second, whatever the minor league players get from MLB, you can bet the owners are going to want to claw something back, not from the minor leaguers (they have nothing to give), but from the MLB players in 2027. MLB players have had a tough time even agreeing with each other, and they share clubhouses and playing fields with each other. The biggest stars have sometimes been out for agreements that benefit them more than the 25th and 26th men on rosters. This last CBA got some young players some extra money, but hardly enough of them, and hardly enough money. It didn’t get anyone to free agency quicker than they do now. It raised the luxury tax as it goes along, but didn’t institute a floor to get more mid-roster or lower-roster players more money. It doesn’t force teams to spend to the tax much less beyond it in any fashion, which only squeezes the middle class of players. The stars will get theirs somewhere, eventually, but what about the middle?

And now there’s a whole lot more middle and low with 5,000 minor league players joining, should they do so. Maybe the future MiLBPA’s asks are pretty modest, just housing and a decent, year-round salary, which we know that the owners can easily cover. But any extra expenditure from the owners, no matter how insignificant it is to them and their accounts, is going to cause them to balance it out somewhere. Whatever set-up the union makes for the minor leaguers, you can be sure whatever CBA they get will be pegged to end at the same time as the Major Leaguers’, and they’re going to be linked right after. What will they do for players whom they don’t share clubhouses and playing fields with, and likely won’t?

It’s a positive step, and the changes the minor leaguers need were only going to come about with something like this. But owners have spent a couple decades getting what they want by pitting the players against themselves, while the owners have rarely if ever been exploited in the same fashion. And now the player pool is that much larger with that many more varied interests and needs. It will not be simple.





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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.