USATSI_18846340
USATSI_18846340

This will not happen overnight, but baseball’s minor leaguers have gained a powerful ally in their quest to make a decent living.

Their major league brethren.

The timeline is blurry, but it’s conceivable that by Opening Day next season, the guys wearing the uniforms of the Hickory Crawdads, Lansing Lugnuts and Montgomery Biscuits will be card-carrying members of the same union that represents Mookie Betts, Max Scherzer and Julio Rodriguez.

The Major League Baseball Players Association said Monday that it has sent authorization cards to minor leaguers with a request to empower MLBPA — which represents around 1,200 major leaguers — to serve as their union. There are between 5,000 and 6,000 minor leaguers.

“MLBPA taking a leadership role is huge — really, really huge,” said Simon Rosenblum-Larson, who is the co-founder and program director of More Than Baseball, one of the groups that has fought for better housing and improved wages for minor leaguers. “(Minor-league) players need to see that their major-league players have their backs. So it excites me that the MLBPA was willing to take this step.

“Since this dropped, frankly, I've heard from dozens and dozens of players. And they're guys that are leaders, right? They're players that have been leaders throughout this fight from, you know, 2020, some of them, 2019. And so these are the leaders that are going to make this a reality. I'm really excited to see that.”

This is not as radical as it sounds. Minor-league athletes in other sports have banded together. In 2020, NBA G League players unionized, with 8% voting in favor of a union that was formed with the help of the National Basketball Players Association. The Professional Hockey Players Association has negotiated collective bargaining agreements for players in the American Hockey League and the East Coast Hockey League.

But this represents a seismic shift in baseball, where there has been talk for decades about organizing minor leaguers. It has only been in recent years, through such groups as Advocates for Minor Leaguers and More Than Baseball, that the concerns about minor leaguers’ living conditions have gained traction and the attention of the MLBPA.

“Minor leaguers represent our game’s future” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said in a statement, “and deserve wages and working conditions that benefit elite athletes who entertain millions of baseball fans nationwide.”

Under federal labor law, 30 percent of roughly 5,000 minor leaguers signing cards would authorize the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a union election, according to Sportico sports legal reporter Michael McCann, an attorney and professor of law at Franklin Pierce (N.H. ) University. If a majority of players then vote in favor of unionizing, MLBPA would become minor-league players’ exclusive bargaining representative. Major League Baseball could also voluntarily recognize MLBPA as the union.

Under either of those scenarios, MLBPA would negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with MLB on behalf of minor leaguers, and that ostensibly would improve pay beyond the increases MLB unilaterally granted in the past year. There are a host of other issues that a union could take up on behalf of the minor leaguers, including pension benefits, job security and safeguards on drug and PED testing.

"This generation of minor-league players has demonstrated an unprecedented ability to address workplace issues with a collective voice,” Advocates for Minor Leaguers executive director Harry Marino said Monday in a statement. "Joining with the most powerful union in professional sports assures that this voice is heard where it matters most — at the bargaining table.”

Marino and the rest of his staff suspended operations and collectively resigned in order to work directly with the MLBPA.

Rosenblum-Larson pitched for Harvard University and was a 19th-round draft choice of the Tampa Bay Rays after his junior season in 2018. Now 25, Rosenblum-Larson advanced as high as Double-A Montgomery last year, but injuries limited him to seven appearances. In late April, he wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post titled I’m a Minor-League Player. Why can’t baseball pay a living wage?”

Six weeks later, in early June, Rosenblum-Larson was released by the Rays, even though he said he’d been cleared to play again physically. He does not attribute his release to the publication of his opinion piece, but the timing is difficult to ignore.

Was his own playing career sacrificed for the cause?

“If that's the case, I couldn't be more proud,” Rosenblum-Larson said. “I don't think that was necessarily the case in my situation. But you know, obviously, if my words swayed a couple of players or helped push this one step farther, that's something I can be incredibly proud of.”

The impetus to unionize comes at a time when the Senate Judiciary Committee is studying MLB’s antitrust exemption and, in the wake of MLB settling a class-action Fair Labor Standards Act lawsuit with minor-league players, the settlement stipulating that $185 million be paid out to more than 20,000 players.

U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D., Ill.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tweeted his support of the union action.

“Minor-league players make near poverty wages while serving as some of MLB’s best ambassadors in communities across America,” Durbin tweeted. “Unionization would finally allow minor-leaguers to negotiate for better pay and working conditions. I welcome this step by MLBPA.”

What were the odds, Rosenblum-Larson was asked, when he first took up the advocacy for minor leaguers’ rights that this day would arrive?

“As stupid as it might sound, I believed it (would come) 100% when I set out and I believe it 100% today,” he said, “and maybe that's part of the reason I chose such an uphill battle for the last four years of my life.

“I firmly believe and I still believe that justice will win out and dignity will win out and fairness will win out. I don't think my assessment has changed. It's a little more visible today than it was four years ago, but at every point of this road, I firmly believed it was possible and probable that minor-league players would win.”

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