Why this matters
Often athlete activists are working toward social progress for their community or the world. In the case of Minor League Baseball's union fight, the cause was much more personal, but the organizing work was no less intense.
The headline from The Associated Press tells a story about the story: “Minor Leaguers form union, 17 days after organizing began.” In nine words, the historic organizing of the 5,500 minor league baseball players in October is reduced to a whirlwind of self-activity. Other readers may infer that the Major League Baseball Players Association must have rescued the minor leaguers in something of an emergency mission. Neither story is true.
The reality is that this was – as the many insiders with whom I spoke described it – a “perfect storm.” The reality is that groundwork had been laid for years by a “conscious element” of players as well as grassroots organizations and that organizing was aided dramatically by the political winds of this broader moment of inequality and upsurge.
This “conscious element” of players and attendant support organizations was able to seed the earth by reaching out across baseball’s racial, ethnic, and linguistic lines to an audience that, despite the precarious nature of their jobs, was more than willing to listen. The “conscious element” savvily used social media to show the reality of living on a minor league salary of $10,000 a year without any kind of housing or security. The minor-leaguers had allies in the MLBPA ready to act and fulfill this longstanding goal. They also finally had a friendly administration in Washington challenging the billionaire bosses to stop them.
This is a story about a contagion of courage among the players. But it’s also a story far bigger than baseball. There have long been people in the labor movement who don’t think athletes are workers because their jobs have a unique set of issues and grievances. But this story proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that baseball’s laborers have far more in common with their generation of low-wage, no-security workers than they do with their baseball bosses. To the successes of the employees at Starbucks and Amazon, we must now add the minor leaguers of 2022.
‘Very Sharp and Very Cautious’
The union push doesn’t happen without Advocates for Minor Leaguers, led by two former pro baseball players turned attorneys – Harrison Marino and Garrett Broshuis – and a respected veteran activist of the labor movement, the essayist and author Bill Fletcher. They put their minds together, raised money from the Ford Foundation, and started to change the mind of MLBPA executive director Tony Clark, a person described to me as “very sharp and very cautious.” Clark saw that serious-minded union people were getting involved in building support for minor leaguers.
The players themselves had to overcome their fear. That is no easy task in a job with poverty wages and no job security. Labor insecurity had long kept players from embracing a union. That mindset began to change dramatically during the pandemic in 2020, when Major League Baseball, without consultation, shut down the entire minor league season. Then, in December 2020, MLB without consultation cut 40 teams to get down to 120 in the minor league system, costing players hundreds of potential jobs.
As one organizer/player said to me, “understanding the pandemic’s effect on people’s psychology was vital to understanding all that happened next.” The MLBA set up a fund to help players and began to fund Advocates for Minor Leaguers to not only help players but also lay the groundwork for the vote to come.
I spoke with Marino, a former minor leaguer with clubs like the Aberdeen IronBirds and Delmarva Shorebirds. Starting in 2021, Marino was the executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers. He is now the assistant general counsel to the minor league players. I asked him how they were able to go from a weakened position during the pandemic to so quickly achieving this decades-old dream.
“The top-line answer is that it happened now because the right group of players on both levels committed to organizing,” Marino said. “Minor league players who organize and believe in the power of collective action, and major league players willing to provide the support to make this effort a reality by organizing into the strongest union in the country.”
The pandemic, the unilateral postponement of play, and the contraction of teams were just the straws that broke the camel’s back. The injury before the insult was the Save America’s Pastime Act, which passed Congress and prevented players from receiving overtime wages so that billionaire baseball bosses could save a few dollars. Basically, its goal was to create an unconstitutional, hermetically separate Minor League Baseball pay scale, and the MLBPA could do nothing because the players weren’t organized. This, as Marino said, “created an environment where players understood how damaging it was to lack a voice.”
Then, in 2021, players came back to the field with a renewed ardor to be treated like human beings. In the offseason, they built out a “player leadership structure,” which, according to Marino, educated teammates in every language necessary about the labor history of baseball and “how to improve conditions going forward.” Minor league players come from all sorts of backgrounds, from Ivy League colleges to abject poverty in Latin America, but the organizing committee was supplied with a variety of bilingual speakers, and brought these disparate forces together to demand united action.
The Benefits of Direct Action
Since their inception in 1901, the minor leagues have become much larger and more spread out, as well as 40 percent Latin American, making language barriers among players more common Those factors, along with the precarity of the job overall, made organizing seem like an impossible task. MLB owners took advantage of the opportunity to stifle wages over time.
As Broshuis points out, “From 1976 to now, we have seen a 75 percent rise in salaries compared to a 400 percent rise in inflation. In the past decade, a group of us decided that because things are the way they are, that doesn’t mean you have to accept the status quo.” Broshuis sees their success rooted in societal changes like the increasing popularity of labor unions, the momentum provided by legal victories of Minor League advocates, and with courage becoming contagious.
Minor leaguers raised the profile of their plight by pointing out to the fans in the news and on social media that despite their poverty salaries, they had no guarantee of housing during the season and that many players even stay with host families during the season. Players started to post their repugnant team meals on social media, and they took part in demonstrations like one in Brooklyn, where players from both the New York Mets’ and the Philadelphia Phillies’ minor league organizations wore wristbands that read #FairBall on the field to support minor league rights. MLB was compelled – forced, really – to change its ways and supply housing.
As Marino says, “players had an understanding now of the benefits of direct action.” The seed of a union was planted as this group of lawyers, labor activists, and former players formed a steering committee that identified points of contact in every clubhouse. Marino gives “a lot” of credit to Clark, who supplied minor league players with union letterhead on all correspondence and the explicit message that the MLBPA had their back. This solidarity combined with a friendlier new presidential administration and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders making noise last spring to strip baseball of its antitrust exemptions helped make the union dream a reality.
For Marino, the movement also owes itself to another former minor-leaguer-turned-lawyer in Broshuis, who started the ball rolling by filing a class action lawsuit in 2014 on behalf of his former teammates for withheld backpay, resulting in a $185 million ruling for the players in August 2022. That victory gave union advocates even more momentum and sent a message to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred that perhaps he couldn’t stave off the inevitable.
Organizing From the Minors to the Majors
Another organization that worked to bring the players together was the nonprofit More Than Baseball, led by another former minor leaguer, Simon Rosenblum-Larson. He told me with no small amount of pride that More Than Baseball held thousands of meetings with individuals and groups of players, “developed networks of supporters in nearly every clubhouse in Minor League Baseball,” and advocated for minor-leaguers to vote in favor of the union this year.
“We took a grassroots, player-first approach, and we believe that helped build the groundwork for a swift and successful card drive and unionization process,” he said.
Fletcher, a longtime union activist, got involved with the organization after his wife, Candice, read a 2016 article about the state of working conditions for minor leaguers at their kitchen table and was duly appalled. Broshuis was named in that article, and Fletcher reached out to talk about unionization. They formed a partnership, but first they explored organizing with other unions, believing that the MLBPA was not showing any movement toward helping minor leaguers organize. After three years spent creating a network of organizing and support in hopes of drawing the eyes of Clark and the MLBPA, they officially formed Advocates for Minor Leaguers in 2019.
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Broshuis continued to talk with people in the MLBPA. Fletcher eventually became chairman of the board of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, yet he was able to make inroads with the MLBPA only after the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. “I was brought in for trainings, in which Tony Clark took part,” Fletcher said. Then, in a critical shift, Marino started speaking regularly to Clark in 2021, a door that opened as a part of a broader reaction in the game to Rob Manfred’s mass contraction of teams in December.
But even after so much groundwork, minor league unionization happened because Clark struck when the iron was hot. The intervention of the major league union in the process was critical. “Bringing minor league players more formally into our fraternity – unionizing them to help improve the terms and conditions of their employment – had been on our radar and building up to this point for years, but we always understood it would only succeed with the right group of players at the right time,” Clark wrote in an email to me.
A union source told me, “The Players Association had been providing funding and meeting regularly with Minor League Advocates for many months, advising them and developing the strategy that culminated in the successful 17-day campaign.” The goal of the Players Association is to have a collective bargaining agreement in place for the 2023 season.
An American “Reawakening” Around Collective Action
Fletcher’s analysis of how the minor leaguers were able to organize so rapidly comes from decades doing this work.
“The organizing was not in any way a spontaneous upsurge of minor league players,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean that there weren’t different degrees of self-organizing, because there were discussions that we know were going on in the clubhouses, and part of the success of this effort was that a critical mass of people signed on to Advocates for Minor Leaguers and got with the message, and they were spreading this message in the clubhouses.”
It was Fletcher who saw the organizing of what he saw as a “conscious element” of players who were essential to activating wider layers of players as unionization became a more feasible reality. Fletcher added, “It’s like other labor struggles I’ve seen. Especially today. These minor league players have much more in common with a coffee shop worker than anything that could possibly separate them.”
Alex Press has been covering this generational labor upsurge for Jacobin magazine. She told me, “There’s a reason so many young people in the United States are not only pro-union but beginning to organize unions in their workplaces despite the myriad obstacles to doing so. The pandemic clarified their position. They are subordinate to employers and, without organization, subject to dictates that required they risk their health and that of their families to make a living.
“These workers – not only baseball players, but Amazon warehouse workers, Starbucks employees, journalists – relied upon one another more than ever over the past few years, and it's only right that they’d build on that experience by unionizing to gain a modicum of control over the conditions of their work. As we can see in the small but determined uptick in new workplace organizing, people have not yet given into despair, but rather, with little left to lose, they are fighting back.”
Or as Tony Clark put it, “There’s been a reawakening to the power of collective bargaining sweeping the country in a wide range of industries in recent years, and it’s being driven by those who, like our players, have a heightened sense of fairness and equity and are determined to effect positive change in the workplace.”
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