June 1, 2023

Michael Chow-Arizona Republic

Just 14 hours before the start of the MLB regular season, the league and the MLBPA reached a tentative agreement on the first collective bargaining agreement for minor league baseball players. They could have picked a day when the baseball headlines weren’t as crowded, but when it comes to making labor history, there’s no time like the present.

The headline figures include massive increases in the minimum salary across all levels and reforms in most of the areas that have made minor league baseball’s working conditions a target for criticism. All that just seven months after minor league ballplayers announced their intent to unionize.

At the moment, all the two sides have is a tentative agreement, which is essentially a handshake deal on a set of terms that both negotiating teams will take back to their full constituencies for a vote. The vote itself is normally (but not always) a formality if the respective bargaining teams recommend it. That process could be complete, and the CBA finalized, as soon as this weekend.

For a comprehensive breakdown of what’s going to change, see the work of Jeff Passan at ESPN and Evan Drellich at The Athletic, both of whom have been on this story from the start. Rather than analyze every single bullet point, I want to pick out some of the highlights and reflect on how completely and rapidly the minor league landscape has changed over the past few years.

Let’s start with the money, an estimated $90 million in guaranteed salary increases across the various levels:

Minor League Salary Increases

Level Then Now
Complex $4,800 $19,800
Single-A $11,000 $26,200
High-A $11,000 $27,300
Double-A $13,800 $30,250
Triple-A $17,500 $35,800

Players, who were previously paid only during the season, will now receive checks during spring training and most of the offseason, including four weeks’ back pay for this year’s spring training. No ballplayer is going to get rich off the minor league minimum salary. It’d be difficult, if not impossible, to raise a family on any of these minimum salaries, and even for a single man living in league-subsidized housing, $19,800 only just gets you to the bottom of a living wage in places like Florida and Arizona. Baseball will still pay its minor leaguers less than basketball, where G-Leaguers make a minimum of $40,500 a year. In hockey, ECHL players make a minimum of $510 a week, while the AHL minimum is upwards of $50,000 a year.

But consider that minor league hockey players have been unionized since 1967 — major league baseball didn’t even have divisions back then — and minor league baseball players made these gains in one offseason, in their first CBA. It’s huge progress.

Another economic gain for the players is the reacquisition of their name, image, and likeness rights, which had previously been held by the league. Getting these rights was a big enough deal for college athletes that most sports fans know what NIL stands for offhand now. This will probably end up being an afterthought in terms of most players’ wallets. But until the minor leaguers unionized, the league was not only paying them poverty wages, it also restricted their ability to market themselves. That’s a particularly odious double-barreled message of: You’re not valuable enough to deserve a living wage, but also you’re so valuable capital must extract profit not just from your labor but from your name and physical appearance.

Among other improvements to housing and transportation subsidies, players living in team-subsidized housing in the top two levels of the minors will have their own bedrooms. (Anyone who was ever a teenager and has younger siblings knows what a big deal this is.) Players will also have a say in the composition of clubhouse meals through a joint clubhouse nutrition committee. And for the first time, minor leaguers will have the benefit of codified workplace policies the MLBPA won so long ago they’re taken for granted in the majors: the right to a second medical opinion, codified policies on drugs and domestic violence, and a grievance process.

Under this five-year agreement, life in the minor leagues will be hard. The pay won’t be very good, the job security minimal as the sport, by its very structure, continues to cull and eat its own young. But it will be, by orders of magnitude, easier and healthier than it was five years ago. In the hours after the TA was reached, minor league pitcher-turned-attorney Garrett Broshuis posted a tweet thread reflecting on the deal. If you’ve read anything at all on the subject this week you’ve probably seen it, but the particulars are worth revisiting.

Because it’s easy to forget about minor leaguers cramming an entire starting rotation into a two-bedroom apartment on air mattresses, sleeping in cars and closets because they couldn’t afford housing, being unable to afford food. Life will be hard in the minors going forward, but it will be livable in ways players of Broshuis’ generation could scarcely have imagined.

So what’s the catch?

The big concession on the union’s part was agreeing to cut the in-season reserve list from 180 to 165 players. The reserve list comprises all rostered minor league players outside of the complexes in the Dominican Republic, so these cuts basically reduce the number of minor league jobs by about 8%.

That’s not something to be glossed over. With fewer minor league roster spots, teams won’t have the luxury of waiting on late bloomers to develop in their early 20s. Some of the players who fall through the cracks will end up getting their chance in college or indy ball, but that’s not an option for everyone, particularly players coming from overseas.

Reducing the size of the minor leagues has been a matter of ardent urgency for the league for years, most notably in late 2020 when MLB cut a quarter of its affiliated minor league teams. The league sought to cut the reserve list further during the lockout, but the union resisted.

In a healthy economic and cultural environment, the league and its cartel of owners would treat baseball as the end and profit the means. An argument on the grounds of the health of the sport would be persuasive: Fewer minor league jobs means lost opportunities for would-be stars, even if they are few in number. Fewer minor league teams means fewer opportunities for fans (or potential fans) to see accessible, affordable high-level baseball in person.

That’s not the environment we inhabit, however, and so those arguments are not persuasive. If you’re looking for an entity with power, or at least a seat at the table, that’s looking out for the game itself, your search will go unrewarded.

Corporate avarice is at the root of so much that ails the game, from minor league poverty to tanking to high ticket prices to byzantine and expensive TV bundles. And an easy, but fallacious, logical leap follows: that the most powerful organization that stands in opposition to the league — the union — must fight back on all fronts. But the union’s purview is limited to the interests of its own members, and its power is limited to the ability to leverage public opinion against a well-resourced and shameless adversary.

Winning historic pay increases for minor leaguers, and incorporating the interests of overseas workers outside the jurisdiction of American labor law, and fighting corruption in international player recruitment, and not only stemming the tide against the owners’ devout desire to gut the minors, but reversing the cuts they made unilaterally… that’s not something any union is capable of doing. For that, you’d need a genie. No, wait, that list has four things on it and a genie only gives you three wishes.

And even on the front of minor league reduction, this compromise is hardly a capitulation. MLB has been cutting minor league players and teams unilaterally for years. MLB sought the ability to unilaterally determine the size of the minor leagues, but the union negotiated not only a firm number on the reserve list for the life of the CBA, but also got a guarantee from MLB that there would be no further minor league contraction for the next five years.

Those five years will be calmer and more pleasant for all parties than the five that just passed, but the conflict is far from over. The struggle between labor and capital is, well, I remember some guy saying something to the effect of that struggle constituting the history of all hitherto existing society. I swear I read that somewhere.

But for the first time ever, labor has established a beachhead worth defending in this corner of the industry. And as important as it is to remember what gains are left to be won, and what pitfalls must be avoided, it’s equally important to understand how much progress has been made, against such resolute opposition, in so little time.

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