America's next big labor battle could be Minor League Baseball

When the Major League Baseball Players Association sent union authorization cards to approximately 5,000 minor league players in an attempt to unionize them, I was both surprised and not surprised at all.

If any industry is crying out for unionization, it’s this one. Minor league baseball players are subject to some of the poorest wages and most dreadful working conditions in America. Most of them toil for years before being washed out of the game without ever having reached the promised land of the big leagues.

On the other hand, as someone who has written about baseball’s labor history, I’ve noticed how nobody seemed to care all that much about minor leaguers until relatively recently.

Which begs the question: Why now?

Unionization, once a powerful weapon in the arsenal of the nation’s workforce, looks to be making a comeback – at least marginally, after decades of declining membership and strong-arm tactics by management to defang it.

If unions can work their way into the strip mall coffee shop, why not Minor League Baseball?

Big leaguers get their due

It was hard enough to get major league players to work collectively on behalf of one another.

Marvin Miller, a former labor negotiator for the United Steel Workers of America, became the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966. He soon realized that he faced a monumental task in encouraging big league, brand-name players to stand up for themselves against management.

By 1968 he was able to negotiate the first collective bargaining agreement for MLB players. Two years later, he succeeded in not only raising the minimum major league salary 25% to US$10,000, but also securing for his players arbitration rights. By 1976, players with more than six years of service had won the right to become free agents and negotiate with any team of their choice. Salaries skyrocketed.

As the MLBPA scored victory after victory on the labor front, life for the minor leaguers remained as it had been, and the chasm between being a big leaguer and a minor leaguer grew more pronounced as the decades passed.