COVID & Disaster Capitalism: Busting Unions in Baseball

Puerto Rican Civil Rights Activist Roberto Clemente allied closely with Curt Flood & others to help build the modern players' union in the late 1960s . (Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

As businesses reopen across the United States, many employers are demanding that workers accept concessions to return to work. Few are leading the way more than America’s national pastime: baseball.

From minor league baseball players seeking to unionize to broadcasters’ unions facing unprecedented requests to multimillion-dollar players being nickeled-and-dimed, Major League Baseball is using COVID-19 to try to implement changes that go far beyond the loss of revenue, but are aimed at weakening the power of players, baseball operations workers, and broadcasters for a generation.

“Major League Baseball has been engaging in what Naomi Klein described so well as disaster capitalism, now they have started to implement the things that they have wanted to do all along in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, and as you can expect, resistance crumbles,” says veteran African American labor organizer Bill Fletcher Jr., who has been advising Advocates for Minor Leaguers, a nascent labor organization for developing players.

In order to reopen baseball, Major League Baseball is negotiating with the players’ union over frequency and venue and how much players will be paid in a shortened season.

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On Tuesday, Major League Baseball proposed that players earn a prorated salary for a 76-game season instead of the standard 162. Also, MLB has said that they will only pay players 75 percent of their regular salary as part of that plan.

However, if there is another COVID outbreak this fall, as many experts say is likely, and the playoffs are canceled, Major League Baseball players will only be paid at 50 percent of their salary; meaning that players would make approximately only 33 percent of what their contracts had stipulated before the season, while risking their health to play baseball.

Agreeing to salary cuts could spell disaster for the players’ union, as talks over a new four-year contract are set to begin this fall. With many players already calling for a strike before COVID over what they see as collusion among owners to keep salaries low, accepting these wage cuts would put the union in a very weak bargaining position.

Major League Baseball is playing hardball, though, and threatening to unilaterally impose a 50-game season if the players don’t agree by the end of the week.

“If we don’t get an agreement real soon, this is going to be ugly,” one baseball executive told USA Today on Tuesday. “Real ugly. And it’s just going to get worse.”

While baseball is locked in a high-profile fight with the players, it has already implemented draconian changes on many less high-profile, primarily non-union workers.

Some teams, like my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates, have already frozen the 401(k)s and pensions of their laid-off baseball operations staff, retirement savings contributions that many fear will not return.

Major League Baseball typically has one broadcast crew for the away team coverage feed and a separate one for home team. However, Major League Baseball is claiming that as a result of social-distancing protocols, they can only allow one broadcast crew in the stadium, and both home and away broadcasts will have to share the feed.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the union representing broadcast employees, says that the proposal would likely eliminate over 1,500 positions. The union questions whether MLB’s proposal is really about social distancing, as camera operators are spread out far from each other in the ballpark, or merely an excuse to shed staff.

“For years, baseball has dreamed of doing this, but now COVID has given them the chance,” says Fran O’Hern, co-director of the Broadcast Department at IATSE.

Few groups are more affected by baseball’s concessions than the over 5,000 minor league players, most of whom make less than the federal minimum wage as a result of a bizarre 1922 Supreme Court ruling.

While lacking a union, advocacy by players, fans, and sportswriters led MLB to agree to increase pay for minor leaguers in 2021. Now, those gains may be erased as a result of COVID.

With the minor league baseball season canceled, teams have released more than 1,000 players, nearly 20 percent of their workforce. They also scaled back the player draft from 40 rounds to 5, also to keep minor leaguers off the payroll.

Major League Baseball is proposing once again that they will have to eliminate 25 percent of their minor league teams to stay profitable. Management has long favored this proposal, but in the past has faced stiff resistance from minor league team owners, politicians, and fans.

With the minor league baseball season canceled this year, the proposal is back on the table, hurting minor league players’ efforts to make a fair wage.

“What you are seeing during COVID is that workforces that don’t have representation are subject to the whims of ownership, and that’s true of baseball as well,” says Garrett Broshuis, a former minor league pitcher turned lawyer who founded Advocates for Minor Leaguers, a nontraditional labor organization attempting to organize minor leaguers.

While minor league players in hockey, soccer, and basketball all have unions, the over 5,000 players in minor league baseball have none. Worse, minor league players, who are primarily Latino immigrants, aren’t even legally required to be paid the federal minimum wage for their work.

“Much like agricultural workers and domestic workers, minor league baseball players are excluded from federal labor law and forced to take poverty wages,” says Fletcher.

In 1922, the Supreme Court issued one of their most controversial rulings, stating that baseball was a “game” and not “interstate commerce” and thus couldn’t be regulated under federal law, a legal precedent that has endured despite numerous challenges.

Baseball players in the lowest levels of the minor leagues make a minimum of $290 a week, slated to be raised to $400 in 2021. Players in AAA, the highest level of the minor leaguers, make only $500 a week, slated to increase to $700 in 2021.

Minor league baseball players are also only paid for the five months of the year in which they play. They receive nothing for attending six-week-long spring training, despite being forced to play every day to earn their jobs.

Facing legal challenges from Broshuis, who has sued Major League Baseball multiple times, the Trump administration, with bipartisan support, passed the Save America’s Pastime Act in 2018, first introduced by Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY) and DCCC Chairwoman Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL), to permanently enshrine the exemption in federal law.

Superstar players drafted in the first few rounds of the MLB draft often receive massive signing bonuses in the six figures, sometimes in the millions, that keep them going through several years of player development in the minor leagues. Others turn to family members for financial support.

However, many players use the gig economy to make ends meet, like rookie Minnesota Twins pitcher Randy Dobnak, who was famously mocked during his first playoff start to chants of “Uber” by Yankees fans, because he drove for the rideshare company in the off-season.

“I knew players this spring training even before COVID hit that were driving Uber or driving DoorDash at the end of the day. They would go to spring training early in the morning, work there all day, and at night, they would get in their car or drive DoorDash or Uber now,” says Broshuis.

“How they could manage driving DoorDash at the end of that from a stamina standpoint, I have no idea. Because when I look back at my spring trainings and I was exhausted at the end of one of those days,” says Broshuis.

With half of all minor league players being immigrants from Latin America, many lack the necessary visa for other forms of work. They scramble to find odd jobs and live off charity.

While some teams are paying their minor leaguers a $400 stipend, others are not, leading to increased calls from many players for a union to represent them.

However, organizing minor league baseball players, who change teams nearly every year, is tough. With only one out of every 50 minor league players eventually making it to the major leagues, many are afraid of speaking out.

“Players are young. Players are chasing a dream, so they are reluctant that might lessen their chances of realizing that dream,” says Broshuis.

However, now Broshuis says that as workers nationwide take to the streets in record numbers, he is seeing a similar trend in baseball reflected as players face cuts.

“What we are seeing in the past month is awful for minor league players, but they are also speaking out more than they have in a long time. They are angry at what they are seeing, and in many cases, they feel betrayed,” says Broshuis.

“[It] will be hard to go back to that team and hear them talk about how they care about their minor league players,” Oakland Athletics prospect Peter Bayer told The Wall Street Journal.

“It’s not easy for a 22-year-old to express frustration with an MLB team on social media. It takes a lot of courage to do,” says Broshuis.

“I’m a Twins employee being paid 13% of my salary to be 100% ready to play baseball at a moment’s notice,” tweeted Twins minor league player Mitch Horacek. However, Horacek wasn’t just mad at MLB; he also is mad at the Major League Baseball Players Association.

“I’m also locked out of MLB/MLBPA negotiations because MLBPA doesn’t represent minor leaguers,” said Horacek.

While the NBA players’ union has bankrolled a multimillion-dollar effort to unionize minor league G League, MLBPA so far has yet to bankroll similar efforts.

While major league baseball salaries, whose annual minimum is set at $563,000, have increased by 1,000 percent in recent years, minor league salaries in terms of real wages have actually decreased, according to Advocates for Minor Leaguers.

However, MLB’s treatment of minor league players is leading to increased solidarity from major league players.

After the reigning World Series champs, the Washington Nationals, cut the stipends of minor league players from $400 to $300 a week, players held an emergency video conference call. They came up with a plan to collectively make up the difference out of their salaries.

“All of us were minor leaguers at one point in our careers, and we know how important the weekly stipends are for them and their families during these uncertain times,” tweeted star Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, a proud card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

“Minor leaguers are an essential part of our organization, and they are bearing the heaviest burden of this situation as their season is likely to be canceled,” said Doolittle. “We recognize that and want to stand with them and show our support.”

Other star major league players like the Dodgers’ David Price and the Rangers’ Shin-Soo Choo, the veteran Korean All-Star first baseman, have donated out of their pockets to help minor league players.

“There are some amazing things being done by major league players to support minor leaguers, and what needs to happen is that there needs to be one more step taken, where minor leaguers don’t need just immediate financial support, but they need help in changing the system,” says Broshuis. “They need a union.”

This article was co-published with the American Prospect.

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About the Author

Mike Elk
A protege of Bill Greider, Mike Elk is a yinzer labor reporter, who covered the drug war in Brasil and spent years covering union organizing in the South for the Guardian. In 2016, he used his $70,000 NLRB settlement from being fired in the union drive at Politico to start the crowd-funded Payday Report while living in Chattanooga. The son of United Electrical Workers (UE) Director of Organization Gene Elk, he now lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Melk@PaydayReport.com

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