Some surprising news broke late last night, when it was reported by ESPN and other outlets that Major League Baseball Players' Union had begun distributing authorization cards to thousands of minor league baseball players throughout the country. With those cards came a message from MLBPA executive director Tony Clark, which said in part, "The time is now for Minor League Players to stand together. The Major League Baseball Players Association is inviting you to join our Brotherhood."
Though there was little previous public indication that the MLBPA was attempting to unionize minor league baseball, it's clear now that this has been in the works for some time. Groups like Advocates for Minor Leaguers have spent the past few years organizing to improve the working and living conditions of minor league players, and this is the next step in achieving what can now be seen as their ultimate goal: granting union membership to the roughly 5,000 minor league baseball players currently working in this country. ESPN reported that player reps on each minor league team, organized by outreach coordinators from Advocates for Minor Leaguers, will begin distributing authorization cards to their teammates.
What happens next depends on how many players choose to sign their authorization cards. If at least 30 percent of players sign their cards, the MLBPA can then present those cards to the National Labor Relations Board to demonstrate that there is sufficient interest to hold a union representation election. At that point, MLB could either voluntarily recognize the players' right to collectively bargain (unlikely), or an official vote to unionize will be held. If more than 50 percent of minor league players vote in favor, then a union will be officially established.
It's hard to imagine a group of athletes that could benefit more from unionizing. The minor league system is an historically exploitative one, which has asked too many players to subsist on sub-poverty wages and living conditions. This is also the ideal time for an effort like this to begin. While MLB has been busy "optimizing" the minor leagues by wiping out franchises and the jobs that came with them, they have also been caught showing how easy it would be for them to improve the lives of their employees. A $185 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit for unpaid wages and increased public scrutiny on how minor league players are treated led to some teams raising pay and providing housing for minor leaguers, which surely leads to some inevitable questions from other players: Has the money to properly support us been there all along? If some of us can have better housing and pay, why can't all of us?
These are exactly the sort of questions any union organizer wants in an employee's mind when the time comes to sign an authorization card. The MLBPA still has a long way to go before this union drive can be considered successful, but they sure did pick the right time to kick it off.