Editorial Note: The following piece is written by Jason Wojciechowski, a labour lawyer by day, and an immensely talented baseball blogger by night at Beaneball, The Platoon Advantage and Baseball Prospectus. After reading a recent article at Slate on the salaries and working conditions for Minor League Baseball players, we asked him to share his thoughts.

Un- and under-paid proles in sport are much on the minds of the commentariat these days, with the latest installment of “NCAA players should strike” now being joined by Lily Rothman’s piece at Slate on the underpaid and overworked starry-eyed dreamers of Minor League Baseball.

Rothman limits her example of how poorly treated Minor League players are to the $1,100 per month starting salary for A-ball players (which works out to something not far above the federal poverty line, and that’s before considering that minor-leaguers only get paid during the baseball season), but that management was simply able to impose a drug-testing regime on them is another example of their general powerlessness.

As you would expect, the proposed solution to such ills is for minor-league players to organize into a union and obtain a collective voice with which to speak to management about low pay, bad conditions, violations of privacy, or about whatever else minor-league players feel passionate. Rothman’s exploration of why nobody has yet successfully organized a minor-league union brings to mind the history of the United Farm Workers. There are parallels between the two groups of workers that can help illuminate further the problems sub-MLB players would face in building and maintaining a union.

Rothman uncovers, via conversations with recently retired MLB Players Association attorney Gene Orza, labor lawyer Don Wollett, and living legend Marvin Miller, three reasons for the lack of minor-league unionization. First, the financial incentive for an existing major union to spearhead an organizing drive is extremely low, precisely because minor-league players are so underpaid. If a union takes 1.5% of an $1,100 per month salary, and they’re only taking it six months out of the year, it becomes difficult to actually provide services for the members, to help address grievances, and so forth. Staff, office space, attorneys (ahem), and so forth are expensive.

Second, and somewhat related, though I don’t believe Rothman draws this link, minor-league baseball is an incredibly geographically disparate enterprise. I don’t know which two minor-league teams are the farthest apart, but I do know that there are teams in Tacoma, Washington and Jupiter, Florida, and that Google Maps says that to drive from one to the other would cover upwards of 3,200 miles (that’s 5,150 “kilometres” according to Google). This presents problems both before and after a potential union organizing drive. It is difficult to organize a nation-wide group of employees, and a significant investment in manpower and ancillary costs would be required to accomplish it. Then, if a union were organized, it is difficult to provide services for that group. All of the major sports unions face this, of course, but dues income for those unions is multiple orders of magnitude higher than it would be for a minor-league union.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, every minor-leaguer wants to be a major-leaguer. I think Marvin Miller gets the best line in the article:

The notion that these very young, inexperienced people were going to defy
the owners, when they had stars in their eyes about making it to the major
leagues — it’s just not going to happen.

Practically every union organizing campaign has to overcome the difficulty of employees who don’t want to make waves. It is daunting to face down the prospect of not getting a raise, being passed over for promotions, or, worst of all, losing your job entirely. Even if you believe whole-heartedly in banding together for a voice in the workplace, for better conditions, for better pay, the reality of not being able to provide for your family looms. It is illegal, of course, for employers to take retaliatory action against employees for concerted activity, but it is hardly news to say that it happens anyway, and that the available remedies for such action aren’t always adequate: in a difficult economy, the years it takes to get a final reinstatement order from the appropriate authorities can mean financial ruin.

The title of the article invokes Cesar Chavez, the late, legendary leader of the United Farm Workers. Not much is made of this beyond this line:

That is, unless some underpaid minor leaguer takes it upon himself to become
the Cesar Chavez of baseball.

I suspect that Rothman chose Chavez because everyone knows who he is rather than for any particular analogy. (“Who will be the Eugene Debs of baseball?” and “The minor-leaguers must find their Samuel Gompers!” don’t have quite the same power.) Still, whether it’s intentional or not, there are parallels to be drawn between baseball players and farm workers, and I think we can learn something about the difficulties of unionization by examining those parallels along with the history of the UFW.

First, while the geographical barriers to organizing farm workers were not as strong as they are for baseball players, they still presented a unique challenge compared to the traditional plant model of working and organizing, in which a large group of employees work regular shifts in a single location (building cars or sewing shoes in the old days; keeping a hospital running being perhaps the most relevant example today). One of the core experiences of working in the fields is the migratory nature of the work — different crops grow in different places at different times, and workers must move to meet the varying demands for different types and volumes of work.

On demographics, this U.S. News story, while being chock full of potentially offensive stereotypes about Dominican players, notes that approximately a quarter of all minor league players are from that island. Add in the huge number of players coming from other Spanish-speaking countries and you’ve got a very large percentage of the workforce made up of young men whose shaky grasp of English could make it difficult for those with limited Spanish skills to reach them with messages of solidarity and improved pay. While the farm workers were a much more homogenous group, Cesar Chavez’s organization still relied heavily on idealistic young outsiders flooding into California to volunteer. Many of these young people, for all their enthusiasm, likely did not have the ability to communicate with many of the workers they were trying to organize.

Perhaps more important than the language issue, players coming from the Dominican Republic may have a different view on the amount of money they make than American-born players. $1,100 per month may be subsistence wages at best in this country, but a Dominican player willing to scrimp here can send significant help to his family at home. A player who faces returning home to uncertain economic prospects, then, may see greater risk in trying to unionize than an American with a college degree who might well be able to get a job paying more than he’s making in baseball the day he’s released.

Similarly, Mexican-Americans faced significant difficulties acquiring work due to the racism of the era. Thus, many workers might have reasonably wished to avoid making trouble so as not to lose the one job they knew they could get.

Unfortunately, the lesson to be drawn from these parallels is that organizing minor-league players into a lasting, powerful union might well be impossible. The astounding obstacles the UFW faced were overcome in ways that a prospective union of minor-league players cannot replicate.

For instance, perhaps the best-known farm-worker tactic is the boycott. When 21-year-old Eliseo Medina led the movement in Chicago to convince people not to shop at supermarkets until those supermarkets stopped selling grapes, which in turn caused the grape growers back home in California to feel the pinch and eventually came to the bargaining table. There is no obvious boycott available to minor-league players because the product being sold is their performance.

Even if some creative leader did come up with a boycott (say convincing people not to shop at a sporting goods store until said store stopped selling licensed MiLB merchandise), such boycotts are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. The reason the farm workers were able to get away with it is because they are not subject to that particular piece of federal legislation.

This brings us to a broader question of the law. With farm workers not subject to the NLRA, it falls to the states to provide for any protections that they desire to create. Fortunately for the UFW, California’s top man in the mid-’70s was The Once and Future Governor, Jerry Brown. While the entire story is complicated (and is covered in detail in Miriam Pawel’s tremendous book The Union of Their Dreams), the short of it is that Brown was supportive of farm workers and helped shepherd the Agricultural Labor Relations Act through the state legislature. The legendary UFW lawyer Jerry Cohen called the ALRA the best labor law in the country.

Minor-league players, by contrast, are subject to the NLRA, a statute under which the path to unionization is so fraught with peril that many unions are opting out of that process entire, relying instead on controversial but effective “neutrality agreements” with employers. The list of difficulties in running a traditional NLRA-based campaign to organize a group of workers is beyond the scope of this piece, but suffice it to say that the current state of the law does not make a favorable comparison to the conditions under which the UFW organized agricultural workers.

The last, and saddest, cautionary note about this farm-workers-baseball-players parallel is that the UFW today is not an institution upon which any union would model itself. It exists, but not in any meaningful way in terms of representing workers in the field. There’s no single reason for this, and Cesar Chavez’s failures of leadership combined with his fanatical commitment to building a social movement rather than a union certainly contributed, but the structural difficulties of building and maintaining a union of agricultural workers, many of which difficulties minor-league baseball players would face equally, very likely played a part.

When even the rousing successes of probably the greatest collection of organizing talent in living memory could only be maintained for a decade or two before the whole edifice came tumbling down, what hope does a group of young men who play a game for a living have of attracting the kind of outside attention and resources necessary to organize?