Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Class action suit could expose MLB's sweatshop secret

The Major League Baseball Players’ Association is one of, if not the most powerful union in the world. The first union for team-sports athletes has routinely been one of the more successful and progressive unions in athletics. When Marvin Miller took over for Frank Scott in 1966, he inherited a weak union where members were tied to their team for life. Players could only be moved if the team decided they wanted to. It prompted former Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood to remark that “a well-paid slave is still a slave,” an idea he all but ended his career for in the 1970s.

Miller, Flood and others eventually won the right to free agency and changed the face of modern North American sports forever. Miller and Flood remain on the outside of the Hall of Fame for some reason that defies all logic, but that’s an issue for another day.

Recently, perhaps always, I’ve noticed a trend with the MLBPA that’s more than a little troubling. During their last round of collective bargaining with the league, the union negotiated away the rights of many non-members by allowing the owners to place a cap on amateur international signings and by limiting further the rights of drafted players to negotiate for themselves. It was a move that was decidedly undemocratic and very unbecoming of a labour union, organizations that are set up to fight power and stand up for both current and future members. The current members of the MLBPA have made it clear over and over again that their own self-serving agenda is more important than the prospects of their potential future members (i.e. amateur and minor-league players).

So this bit of news, which surfaced in the past week, is particularly interesting and worth following. On February 7, three former minor league players, Aaron Senne, Michael Liberto and Oliver Odle, filed a class action suit against Major League Baseball claiming, according to ex-lawyer Craig Calcaterra over at NBC Hardball Talk, that “minor leaguers are underpaid and exploited and that the Uniform Player Contract unfairly takes advantage of them.”

It may seem hard to believe that people who choose and are good enough to play baseball for a living would be complaining about matters like salary or working conditions. Here’s the thing: aside from the extreme elite minority that manage to garner large bonuses upon signing, minor league baseball players make less money per year than I do. It should be noted here that I am a PhD student living in abject poverty well below the living wage line.

The vast majority of minor league players are bound by the Uniform Player Contract which relegates them to less than $7,500 per season on average. Players in lower levels are making significantly less. Many of them hold less than zero chance of actually making it to the big leagues. Again, according to Calcaterra, the league also “requires mandatory overtime in violation of state and federal wage laws”. That same contract prevents players from seeking employment with another franchise, thus artificially keeping their salaries down, by barring them from the open market until such a time that they accrue enough minor league service time to become a free agent. That situation doesn’t happen for most.

The most amazing thing about this woefully under-reported story is that this hasn’t already happened. The idea that Major League executives knowingly and happily exploit the dreams of young ballplayers in order to save boatloads of money is disturbing at best and reprehensibly disgusting at worst. Consider that playing professional baseball, even at the lower levels, requires year-round dedication and training – which they’re not paid for – and a massive commitment from players who often have young families. This result forces other members of the family to work harder in order to sustain a probably unrealistic dream.

And sure, I suppose the quick answer is to tell these players to let go of their dream, get back to reality and get a real job. The fact of the matter is that Major League Baseball needs these players to survive. Without the low-ceiling, little hope players filling out their rosters, the entire developmental system that Major League Baseball has set up, by the far the most comprehensive in sports, falls apart. Even the elite players need this developmental system to grow into Major League players and are dependent on the cheap, exploitable labour of scads of minor leaguers and amateurs.

Not to mention that dangling the American dream in front of very talented people must be a difficult thing to give up, even for the least hardened believers in their own talent. It’s a disgusting system and it’s one that, frankly, should never have come into existence under the auspices of such a powerful union.

Of course, there’s a racial element to this, too. Drafted North American players receive far more in bonus money on average and are not required to leave their home country to work under these sweatshop-like conditions. Players from the Dominican Republic, Curacao, Panama, Colombia, and to a lesser extent Venezuela (where poverty is less a problem, although it is by no means first-world) often have little else in the way of choice than baseball. It’s a lifeline out of extreme poverty for the players and their families. And Major League Baseball exploits it like a garment manufacturer moving its facilities where labour laws are but a cruel fantasy.

The sheer logistics of unionizing minor league players makes the task nearly impossible and this is where the blame needs to be spread to the Players’ Association. Despite the fact that these players are not allowed in the union, their rights (through the draft and international signing rules) are negotiated by the PA. Like I said before, the union has routinely shown that it will sell their prospective future members down the river in a heartbeat if it means more money to spend on big league free agents and in arbitration bargaining. How very un-union.

These three rather brave former minor leaguers will surely have their day in court and I hope they win. Such a victory could spark a movement of other players to do the same and help end the sweatshop conditions for minor league ballplayers — the dirty little secret that allows Major League Baseball to exploit their way to billion-dollar profits.

UPDATE: And of course, as I finish this piece, MLB has voted to allow teams to eliminate pension for non-uniformed employees, as Calcaterrra again astutely points out, the league lied about this very thing last year. Apparently being a billion-dollar industry just isn’t quite enough. Shameful.

Tags: Baseball Owners Curt Flood Marvin Miller Minor Leagues MLBPA

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