Rob Manfred didn’t make a name for himself in baseball as a former player, as a general manager or as a team president or as a team owner, or as a marketing or broadcast manager.
Manfred, the commissioner, made a name for himself as a labor lawyer. Under his leadership, a quarter century of social peace crumbled last December, when owners locked players out. And, in a dramatic move late Sunday night, Major League Baseball Players Assn. declared its intention to represent minor league players.
If enough minor league players agree, Manfred and the major league owners would no longer decide for themselves how much to pay the minor leaguers. Collective bargaining would also determine whether minor leaguers should continue to be tied to the major league team that signed them for seven years, and what standards should be established in areas ranging from housing and nutrition to licensing and merchandising.
“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,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said in an email to agents, obtained for the first time by Athletic. “It’s time for that to change.”
That could have changed without the players union’s intervention, but the reforms Manfred and the owners have made in the minor leagues have largely been reactive rather than proactive.
When a group of minor leaguers sued MLB for violating federal minimum wage law in 2014, MLB responded by lobbying Congress for an exemption from the law. Without an exemption, MLB warned, minor league teams could be eliminated.
In 2018, Congress approved the exemption. MLB still eliminated 43 minor league teams.
This year, as the Senate Judiciary Committee explored whether to strip MLB of its antitrust exemption, Manfred suggested the action could result in the elimination of even more minor league teams.
Meanwhile, in 2020, a non-profit organization called Advocates for Minor Leaguers had formed, using social media to show the cramped quarters and stingy meals Minor Leaguers are used to. In response, for the first time, MLB agreed to provide housing for minor leaguers.
And, after a judge ruled minor leaguers should be considered year-round employees and should be paid for spring training as well as the regular season, MLB agreed to pay $185 million. to settle this 2014 lawsuit.
This agreement did not quell the mounting public pressure. In July, about the antitrust exemption, Manfred told me, “I can’t think of anywhere where the exemption is really meaningful, other than relocating the franchise.” The Senate Judiciary Committee took notice, and committee chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told me he planned to call Manfred to a hearing in Washington, probably in September or October.
Meanwhile, during the All-Star Game that month, Manfred said this about the minor leaguers: “I reject the idea that they don’t get a living wage.” Beyond salary, he referenced signing bonuses and free housing.
On the same day, Harry Marino, executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, had this to say about major league owners: “I think the league is very nervous.”
With this crescendo of criticism, the MLBPA offered to do what it had long resisted: represent the minor leaguers. The MLBPA had helped the minor leaguers in other ways, but the potential for conflict with the major leaguers had been a hindrance.
“In negotiations, everything is basically traded dollar for dollar,” pitcher and MLBPA rep Andrew Miller told me in 2018. us elsewhere. That’s just the reality of the deal.
Sunday night, according to The Athletic, Miller was one of the voices on video promoting the MLBPA plan to minor leaguers. An MLBPA official said no member of the union’s executive board voted against the plan.
On Monday, the union publicly announced its decision to organize the minor leaguers, and Advocates said it would suspend operations because its employees had accepted positions with the MLBPA. MLBPA advocates and leaders had been quietly working on the organizing plan for months, according to a person familiar with its progress.
The MLBPA plans to establish a separate bargaining unit for minor leaguers, as their labor agreement would be independent of the current major leaguers’ collective agreement.
The salary of a triple A player starts at around $14,000. The salary of a player at the top level of minor league hockey starts at around $52,000. Minor league hockey is unionized, and now minor league baseball may be too.
That doesn’t mean minor league baseball will get better salaries next season. On Sunday night, the MLBPA asked minor leaguers to sign a card authorizing the union to be their representative in labor negotiations. If 30% sign on, according to federal labor law, minor leaguers would vote on whether to join the MLBPA, with a majority vote required.
If a significant number of minor leaguers sign, the MLBPA could ask MLB to recognize the minor leaguers as unionized without a vote, and contract negotiations could begin. But MLB — like any employer — could demand a vote. In the run-up to that vote, MLB — like any employer — might try to persuade minor leaguers that they would be better off without the union.
Under Manfred, the owners improved minor league wages and working conditions, but reluctantly, and not without outside pressure. This record indicates that the owners might be better off working with the union here, rather than fighting the union and trying to force a vote. The owners, remember, have already lost $185 million battling minor leaguers.
An MLB campaign to resist a union might come down to: “Trust Manfred, he’ll do the right thing.” In that case, I bet a piece of metal that the major leaguers would rush to rally behind the minor league cause.