Unionization in the Minor Leagues

            I have written occasionally about the terrible working conditions for most minor league athletes. Terrible working conditions are not unique to minor league or college athletes. But because they are more high profile than the average worker who has to deal with conditions that threaten personal dignity, safety, and health, their plight might seem magnified.

            Tolerance of poor working conditions for any group of people makes it easier to tolerate poor working conditions for every group of people. And it does not have to be that way. 

            So I was heartened this week when I read that minor leaguers are finally getting an opportunity to unionize, and the Major League Baseball Players Association is taking the lead in trying to organize them.

            Most minor leaguers never get a sniff of the big leagues – only about ten percent make it. And remember these are the best of the best players in the world. A guy who signs a minor league baseball contract has been the best player on his team through high school, and one of the best, if not the best, in college. These are elite athletes.

            Yet when they get to the minor leagues they are honored with inadequate housing, nutrition, and travel. Long bus rides, crowded housing, and limited meal options are the norm. Meanwhile the pay does not even come close to minimum wage. New players in rookie ball make about $4,800 annually. Those that make it to AAA, just one step below the big leagues, earn just $14,000 annually on average.

            These guys, all chasing the same dream of someday playing in the major leagues, endure the conditions because of the elusive brass ring that awaits. But for most it is a false hope. Meanwhile, the major league owners have consolidated the minor leagues under the major league umbrella and begun taking a bigger piece of the revenue pie for their own coffers while leaving the talent that fills minor league ballparks around the country with the crumbs.

            What can a union do for the players? Lots. Minor leaguers have never been represented in collective bargaining, probably because if any took the risk of signing a card or seeking representation they could be blackballed and see their dream end. It remains a risk for these guys, same as it remains a risk for college athletes who produce revenues in the billions for their schools and conferences.

            But fundamentally, the athletes should be getting a bigger share of the pie, not just in terms of dollars but also in terms of humane working conditions.

            As I have written before, when we are willing to tolerate poor working conditions in any environment, those working conditions become normative and impact all workers. Collective bargaining has proven to be an important component of improving conditions for all workers, not just unionized workers.

            Speaking for the union, Tony Clark, the executive director, said, “Minor leaguers deserve wages and working conditions that befit elite athletes who entertain millions of baseball fans nationwide.” If successful in the organizing effort, around 5000 minor leaguers will gain representation by the union and be able to collectively bargain for improved wages and other working conditions including meal allowances, housing, insurance, and retirement benefits.

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