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Some surprising news on the labor front dropped Monday when the Major League Baseball Players Association – the union that represents MLB players on 40-man rosters – announced that it will begin working toward the goal of representing minor-league players

As well, Advocates for Minor Leaguers, the organization dedicated to improving the working conditions of minor-league players, will be willingly absorbed by the MLBPA to help with the unionization effort. Advocates for Minor Leaguers released a statement on Monday saying they were "thrilled by this development." 

In its press release on the initiative, the MLBPA referred to the surprise announcement as a "historic effort," and it is indeed that. Minor-league players have never been formally represented by an empowered bargaining unit, but now such a development is a real possibility and probably a strong likelihood. 

Needless to say, the implications of this news are significant and wide-ranging, and further exploration of this union drive and what it means for the sport is in order. Here, then, is a brief explainer on the major considerations stemming from Monday's announcement. 

Why the MLBPA is making this effort now

In many ways, it's the next logical step in empowering professional baseball players. In recent years, much attention has been focused on the low wages and poor living conditions afflicting many minor-league players. That's thanks in large measure to the work of the Advocates organization mentioned above. To cite but one example, Advocates has effectively communicated to the current generation of minor leaguers the ways in which – in their view – working conditions are lacking and exploitation is the norm. That, no doubt, has helped create the current groundswell among minor-league players. 

Also, – as Marc Normandin pointed out in his newsletter devoted to labor issues in baseball – a group of former players not so long ago successfully sued MLB over working conditions, which probably contributed to the current mood of solidarity. On a broader level, the fact that the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is presently evaluating MLB's century-old antitrust exemption – and specifically as it relates to the minor leagues – has probably emboldened the MLBPA to take this step on account of shifting leverage. 

How the unionization process works and what's next

The next step is for players to receive and/or submit their voting cards. It stands to reason that the movement's leaders and the MLBPA believe there is substantive support for unionizing, and certainly far more than the 30 percent required for them to file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board -- otherwise, they would not be proceeding at this time. The exact amount of support is a crucial piece of information, since the potential responses by MLB that we have highlighted below will chip away at the supporting body. MLB could theoretically acknowledge the union without an election, but the odds of that are presumably slim. The timeline on an election is also worth keeping in mind: as union lawyer Eugene Freedman pointed out on Twitter, MLB could attempt to delay an election on the grounds that the bargaining unit will suffer significant turnover if the process stretches beyond this season.

Precedent for other minor-league unions

This much is clear. The players can look to other sports for examples of minor leaguers successfully unionizing. The Professional Hockey Players' Association was founded in the late 1960s, making it nearly as old as the MLBPA. In 2020, the National Basketball Players' Association helped G League players form the Basketball Players Union. (The NBPA still represents players who are on two-way contracts, for those wondering about the gray area.) Even the United Soccer League of Pennsylvania's players have unionized in recent years, laying the blueprint for future organizing.

Why would minor leaguers want to unionize

In general terms, there's no surer way to higher wages, better benefits, and other improved working conditions than via unionization. Players advocating for themselves through a single bargaining unit and with the power to withhold their labor en masse is obviously far more effective than a single or small number of minor leaguers pressing for the same objectives. Data on the wages and benefits of unionized workers vs. the non-unionized bear this out across an array of industries. 

On a more specific level, MLB's decision to contract more than 40 affiliated minor league teams has raised legitimate concerns that commissioner Rob Manfred and team owners covet further contraction – which necessarily means a loss of minor-league jobs for players – and the best way to parry that hypothetical is union representation. 

How MLB will respond

MLB has not yet issued an official response to the news. In theory, they could attempt to intimidate or dissuade the players from organizing by co-opting the kinds of tactics that are prevalent in other labor movements across the country: be it an aggressive misinformation campaign, and/or their version of shutting down a Starbucks location: threatening further cuts to the minor-league apparatus. Of course, the aforementioned interest that the judiciary committee has taken in MLB's treatment of minor-league players may convince them to play nice -- or nicer, at minimum. That doesn't necessarily mean MLB will rush to recognize the union, should the players' efforts succeed, but it may ward against some of the nastier potential approaches. Again, though, this is all speculation and theory at this point in the process. Whatever their tack, it's worth noting that Manfred once worked for one of the most prominent anti-labor law firms in the country. Whatever the playbook is, he's familiar with it.