Can Minor League Players Get Paid Without a Union?

Having a union — and union leader like Donald Fehr — would make it easier for minor-leaguers to get paid. (via Bruce C. Cooper)

Players who are not on the 40-man major league roster are not eligible for membership in the Major League Baseball Players Association, and as such, are not guaranteed the same protections or benefits of collective bargaining as their union brethren. According to Emily Waldon of The Athletic, the average minor league compensation for 2019 will be between $6,100 for Single-A players and $14,850 at the Triple-A level. For the entire year. There are, however, avenues that players and their advocates could pursue to improve minor league pay and working conditions. It would be extremely difficult without organized leadership, but whereas many of the disputes in major league baseball are litigated through collective bargaining and/or the courts, legislative policy and advocacy present a unique opportunity to these players.

Last year’s somewhat hyperbolically named “Save America’s Pastime Act” ensured that players wouldn’t be paid overtime under federal regulations for anything worked above 40 hours, which surely every minor league player is doing in one form or another. But now, Major League Baseball is even getting in on state legislation that would stymie improving the working conditions of their farm hands. Arizona House Bill 2180 was introduced earlier this year and aimed to exempt minor league players in the state from the state’s soon-to-be $12 per hour minimum wage, as voted on by the electorate. As states increase their own minimum wage laws above the federal requirement, there may be some hope for minor leaguers who are not on the 40-man major league roster to improve their situation above the paltry monthly salary they receive during the season.

While major pushes in player advocacy have historically taken the form of lawsuits or union organizing, one route that hasn’t really been attempted to a large degree is political and legislative advocacy, and for good reason. Lawsuits can proceed with as few as one plaintiff, but advocacy requires coordination best engaged in through the structure of an organization like a union. For now, the question of whether this is the ideal avenue for the much more legally complex issue of a minor league union will be set aside, as we focus on the possibility of engaging in political advocacy as one opportunity available to players. To that end, players and advocates can engage in both advocacy for current opportunities, and if they are able to gain momentum, could even propose proactive changes to improve their compensation.

In order to engage successfully in political advocacy, players would have to recognize the strengths of their opponent, in this case Major League Baseball. The strongest likely strategy for MLB is to leverage its innate advantages: it has an organizational structure that supports a communications department, legal and lobbying efforts, and financial expenditures toward those efforts. MLB can send a memo to all 30 clubs with talking points on why HB 2180 would be good for business, allowing them to align on messaging for the media or legislators themselves. Without an equivalent body representing minor league players, who is coordinating their resources? Are there communication structures to support it?

The level of organization MLB enjoys also creates built-in influence for ownership, which is apparent from the comments made to the Arizona Republic by the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. T.J. Shope: “Major League Baseball is a major component of Arizona’s commerce and tourism,” Shope told the paper, which went on to add that “[h]e said any business that relies on tourism is grateful for the minor league system in Arizona and the tourism it generates.” One could argue that it’s actually the players who create tourism and commerce for the state, but there is no mechanism to carry that message to the Republic or any other outlet, nor to direct its membership into participating or not participating in that commerce (such as in a strike) like there is with organized baseball.

The other major advantage for MLB and its affiliates, and impediment for a player-focused advocacy strategy, is MLB’s obvious financial advantage. Baseball’s deep pockets allow for well-compensated representation in the forms of lawyers and lobbyists. In fact, public records in Arizona list the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball as a lobbying principal that has retained a private firm to represent its interests with the legislature. Expending financial resources for representation is simply not an avenue that has been available to minor league players.

So, the players have an uphill climb facing disadvantages in organizational structure, influence, and money. Those aren’t easily overcome, but there actually are some advantages that minor league players could consider to build an effective campaign.

The first to consider would be the strength of players: they’re ballplayers. This carries social capital and appeal. They are publicly admired figures (with all the attention that comes with a social media followings) in a way that owners and the commissioner aren’t. Secondly, one might think of the current political climate as a potential advantage, considering that it was Arizona voters who ushered in the requirements for a higher minimum wage in the first place with Proposition 206. That kind of momentum and context could give an advantage to minor leaguers, either in legislative advocacy or in public opinion.

To best utilize these strengths, a successful campaign to stop the current proposal (or perhaps even proactively address some concerns with players’ own legislation) could consider the following strategies, each of which has its own challenges.

Cultivate Champions

In the same way HB 2180 has a main legislative sponsor who championed MLB’s priority, players should look for legislators to be potential sponsors. Using their social capital to do so could provide leverage. Players could use their own social media platforms to call out and thank legislators who are supportive of their priorities, and likewise point out legislators who are in opposition. This would be effective as a means of drawing more attention to the issue, as players likely have significantly more followers than any state legislator.

State laws vary in terms of what constitutes “gifts” are and which gifts can be accepted by a public official, but players could also consider bringing policy makers out to the ballpark as guests. Showing decision-makers what minor-league work is like may help to educate them on the issue of fair pay for minor league players. Even if it’s just an impressive visual for legislators to take in, the publicity could be beneficial when it comes time for lawmakers to reach a decision and vote. It’s the same idea behind public officials going to ribbon cuttings, or touring a school. It’s an opportunity that provides legislators with the ability to communicate priorities and generate goodwill or media attention.

Of course, this strategy runs into the challenge of minor league players not currently having a structure to effectively organize such a campaign; it would require players and advocates to do this on their own. Similarly, without an organization directing such activities, players would either have to rely on major league players (who are probably not as affected by these issues, but do have a larger social media following and are more recognizable), or on players who aren’t union members, who typically wouldn’t have as much social capital. Recent tweets by Christian Yelich and Justin Verlander are good examples of established players using their social capital to address workplace issues by trying to exert public pressure, but it remains to be seen if these players — or non-union members whose careers are at stake — would engage in such an effort on minor-leaguers’ behalf.

Build Coalitions

Given the political milieu that propelled Proposition 206 in Arizona and the national Fight for $15 initiative to increase wages, there is increased organizing activity around minimum wage laws in state legislatures. Minor league players would be wise to capitalize on that momentum by aligning with organizations already doing this work. Supporting the existing work through amplifying partner organizations’ messaging or drawing attention to the organizations could go a long way in building relationships or at least understanding common challenges and solutions.

It’s worth acknowledging that in addition to other community-based organizations or grassroots groups doing this work, there are existing organizational structures that could assist players in moving their priorities forward. The MLBPA has already weighed in on Arizona’s bill; perhaps it could provide lobbying or communications support to non-MLBPA members. Similarly, player agents might have a role here. A forward-thinking agency might be able to allocate some of its resources toward these efforts, recognizing that the best interest of players (whether on the 40-man roster or not) could have long-term benefits for their clients as well as the agencies themselves.

The Pianist and Satchel Paige
A pianist finds inspiration in games from his childhood.

Communicate

A communications-based strategy is another that falls short without the infrastructure a union or advocacy organization could provide, but it could be extremely effective nonetheless given players’ existing reach. In addition to developing common talking points to address the issues that are important to players, an effective strategy to kill HB 2180 would be to label it in the same way the “Save America’s Pastime Act” sought to do. Names have power, and opposing the “Save America’s Pastime Act” is a difficult vote to justify in a soundbite.

Similarly, if more players wanted to write in the Players’ Tribune, or give an interview, or state opposition in social media to the “Government Bailout for Baseball Owners” or “No More Ice Cream at Ballparks Act,” it could help draw some negative publicity to those who support efforts to suppress minor-league wages or provide cover for legislators who may be opposed to such efforts.

I don’t mean to be glib about the very real issues and impact such a law could have on minor leaguers. I only want to point out that labeling these bills could be impactful; those examples have as much to do with the issue as the “Save America’s Pastime Act” did with saving America’s pastime.

In addition to these advocacy strategies to deal state-level legislation, players and their advocates could consider proactively advancing legislation to address their cause. Once again, the lack of a cohesive organization hinders progress here, but if those were to be addressed through a MiLBPA or through coalitions, whether player, agent, or MLBPA-directed, there could be opportunities for players to move their interests forward, which would have two effects. First, the obvious impact would be legislation that would secure the players’ priorities in statute. But a secondary consequence could be that if such legislation gained traction — say a bill defining what constitutes “work” for minor leaguers and for the purposes of overtime — perhaps MLB would be more willing to negotiate or address some concerns rather than let these issues wind up on the books as a matter of law.

Another creative amendment could be tacked onto the existing bill that specifies that minor leaguers are exempt from the minimum wage rule, but that clubs must pay for all equipment the players use (currently minor leaguers pay for their own bats, cleats, and other equipment) and room and board for the players. Suddenly, the bill becomes less interesting for MLB and potentially starts making things uneasy for supporters and detractors in the legislature alike to the point they never bring it for a vote. Perhaps just one such piece of legislation would be enough to garner media attention and pressure concessions. This wouldn’t require a full-on organizational effort, but rather just one legislator to champion the cause.

Arizona’s HB 2180 did not end up moving forward during that state’s most recent legislative session. It’s not clear how the issue will play out in Arizona. In fact, there seems to be some very real challenges ahead, as acknowledged by the bill’s sponsor in the reporting linked above. It would need to pass with a two-thirds majority, and assuming it did, would need to “further the intent of the voters” who passed Proposition 206, lest it be subject to legal challenges. It’s not immediately clear how a bill that exempts minor league baseball players from the initiative does that. Still, the bill is a further reminder that MLB is willing to legislate the compensation and working conditions of minor leaguers and is proactively taking those steps to do so, especially as more states enact higher minimum wage requirements.

It’s awfully difficult to conceive of neutralizing that effort without an organizing force to oppose or even proactively address these concerns. Legal challenges and unions for players have advantages in structure, but political advocacy benefits from flexibility, in that there are multiple opportunities for engagement that wouldn’t need a majority of minor leaguers to sign on. Ten well-informed players who decide to make this a priority and coordinate on messaging and outreach could make a huge difference in a state legislature.

Minor leaguers and their advocates (families, fans, professional organizations, agents, and the MLBPA) have avenues and strategies that can capitalize on some advantages, but even those will probably have to have some type of structure behind them if they’re to be successful. Advocacy at the state level isn’t a sure thing and faces significant hurdles as an effective strategy toward changing the lot of minor leaguers. What it does do is provide an additional option that really hasn’t been undertaken. At a minimum, it could alter the calculus that goes into the Commissioner’s Office’s investments in state lobbying.


Sean Roberts is an occasional contributor to Baseball Prospectus and works in government affairs and policy.

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JayTeammartyvan90Spa CityWoundedSprinterfrank Recent comment authors
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martyvan90
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martyvan90

Not to start out quibbling however…. “According to Emily Waldon of The Athletic, the average minor league compensation for 2019 will be between $6,100 for Single-A players and $14,850 at the Triple-A level.” I suspect those numbers don’t include amortized signing bonuses for the more elite players at each level. Which IMO is playing with the numbers to frame an argument. Few baseball lovers would argue that the median MiLB player is under payed. Making it to the “Show” has a tremendous reward like getting a novel published, a role on Broadway, or (God forbid) a Hollywood movie but for… Read more »

JayTeam
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JayTeam

There’s a difference between salary and bonuses, (which gives teams an exclusive right to the players at below free market value). How often does an average salary in a company include CEO’s? And the “”harsh economic reality” in Arizona will be a $12/hr minimum wage. which the players won’t be entitled to. And even the most marginal players have skills far beyond the person at the take-out window at you’re local food joint who will get the $12/hr.. The Blue Jays, not a team known for free spending and owned by a publicly traded corporation (which therefore has to answer… Read more »

martyvan90
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Member
martyvan90

“Basically teams underpay their minor leaguers because they can.” Agreed, until the optics of it become untenable. At which point they’ll probably pay them more and evaluate the number of MiLB team in their system. There are cheaper ways to develop players, some have been suggested in the string. I would challenge a couple of your points ” How often does an average salary in a company include CEO’s?” actually it does when calculating option distribution and CEO’s salaries are often benchmarked to compare inequitable salaries in companies. “And the “”harsh economic reality” in Arizona will be a $12/hr minimum… Read more »

GoNYGoNYGoGo
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GoNYGoNYGoGo

Agree 100%. The Yankees, for example, last season paid each of their top 10 draft choices at least $100K bonus, and draft choices in the 30s were still signing for a bonus of $25K. Amortized over 2-3 years, this almost doubles the figures quoted in the article. While certainly it would be nice for the players to get some more cash, the Blue Jays recently decided to pony up more, and Commissioner’s office recently prodded owners in that direction. Would hate to see marginal prospects turned over more, or a minor league system to be developed/moved to the Caribbean to… Read more »

Paul G.
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Member
Paul G.

This is an interesting subject. The matter of the fact is that most players in the Arizona League are of minimal value to the MLB. This is the bottom of the minor leagues. Teams do not sell tickets or concessions, which makes the league a pure money sink. This is only tolerated because the MLB teams think that the amount of money they are losing in these endeavors is worth it in the long run through player development. Most of the players at this rung are never going to sniff the high minors, much less the majors, and the ones… Read more »

channelclemente
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Pay them 10% of the MLB minimum. To do otherwise is foolish. This make it to the show BS is a con given how few do make it.

Skin Blues
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Member
Skin Blues

Just like the people who knit rugs to sell at local craft shows will never make enough money to cover minimum wage for the hours they spent working, when there’s an unending supply of passionate people willing to work basically for free, there’s not much incentive to pay them more. If it made sense for baseball teams to pay players more (to encourage a better atmosphere, ensure proper nutrition, good PR for their fans, etc), they probably would. The Blue Jays took steps to address that this year so hopefully that sparks some change. We’ll see what comes of that.

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

It is time to approach coaches and politicians who are former MiLB players to come forward and fight for conditions for the players. The economic structure of the lowest level of the minors would indeed not be viable if the players had to be paid minimum wage. The answer to this problem is not to shrug our shoulders and say the operators of these franchises can’t do it. The answer is to produce journalistic exposes about how the players struggle to make ends meet and demand that the parent clubs in MLB foot the bill. They are making obscene sums… Read more »

Spa City
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Member
Spa City

Why should the federal government get involved?

If fans are unwilling to spend money on MLB teams that under pay minor leaguers, then MLB will fix it.

But if fans don’t care, and if players are willing to play for such little money, then why get the government involved?

frank
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Member
frank

“It is time to approach …. politicians who are former MiLB players to come forward and fight for conditions for the players. …” California Governor Gavin Newsom , that’s your cue.

Spa City
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Spa City

The minor leagues are a relic of the past. The minor leagues are for practice only. Minor league teams do not earn money. Everybody would be better off with a new business model… Prospects should not play actual games often. They should be employed to practice 8 to 10 hours per game, including exercise, drills, and classroom instruction. A prospect would get more value from fielding 100s of ground balls/fly balls each day. Teams don’t even need to play opposing teams. They can (e.g.) play a series of 3 inning inter-squad mini games to get situational practice. No need for… Read more »

Spa City
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Member
Spa City

How many people who so badly want minor leaguers to earn more money actually buy season tickets to minor league teams? How many of you buy minor league jerseys?

The large majority of fans only care about MLB. The large majority of minor leaguers will never play in MLB. If you want minor leaguers to earn more money, perhaps try patronizing minor league teams.

JayTeam
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JayTeam

You seem to be very opinionated on a subject you know almost nothing about. Most full season minor league teams aren’t owned by MLB teams, they are privately owned. And they do make money because those owners don’t pay the player salaries. MLB teams pay the salaries. So to the owners of those minor league teams, it makes zero difference how much the players are paid.

Spa City
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Member
Spa City

You would get points off for Ad Hominem if you were in a high school debate club. But I certainly know this much – Baseball pays minor leaguers exactly as much money as it takes to get a whole lot of 18 to 25 year old non-prospects to help the small handful of actual prospects practice baseball. If people actually cared, they would withhold their money from MLB until MLB stepped in and paid minor leaguers more. But people don’t withhold their money… They throw billions of dollars at MLB while MLB pays non-prospects pennies. If you really want to… Read more »

JayTeam
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JayTeam

Thanks for the insipid advice. I’m sure any boycott I start will have massive far-reaching implications.And yes, it is easier to criticize comments from posters that don’t even know that minor league teams make money and don’t pay the players.

WoundedSprinter
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Member
WoundedSprinter

What a weird set of responses. Sometimes crafted in terms of baseball “as it is,” sometimes a frankly loony comparison to selling quilts at a craft fair.

How about comparing Minor League baseball players to the average kid in the workplace?

If your (or my) average kid gets an hòurly wage of $10 , I can’t see why minor leaguers should put up with less. I don’t like Unions in general — but some situations cry out for them.