MLB strikes out on labor negotiations


Illustration credit: Ezra Bergson-Michelson.

On December 1, the Contract Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Player Association (MLBPA) came to a long-awaited end. The CBA regulates wages, rules and labor regulation within the scope of the MLB and MiLB (Minor League Baseball). The CBA is renegotiated every five years and many predicted this round to come to a head after MLB team owners consistently won recent negotiations.
The last player strike was conducted in 1994 and caused the cancellation of half a season, rewriting of labor laws, and the start of a rise in major league player salaries. However, before a strike could occur this time, MLB commenced a lockout, which effectively halted all MLB proceedings. During a lockout, there can be no communication between players and teams (including coaches and medical staff,) no representation of MLB players on marketing content, no contract negotiations, and no games played.
This lockout occurred as a result of stalled negotiations between the MLB and MLBPA, which only represents players who have made it to the major leagues. However, many of the issues stem from even earlier in players’ careers. In 2019, nearly 90% of minor league baseball players were paid below the living wage, according to ESPN. Without a union, these minor league players can make under $5 dollars an hour. According to Baseball America, only 10.5% of the minor league players make it to the majors, baseball careers more frequently end in debt than wealth. Even among players who do make it to the majors, many take on massive loans or do not last long enough in the MLB to pay off debts accumulated during their minor league careers.
Former top prospect Matt Antonelli spoke about the extreme financial risk that players who get drafted take. “If you don’t get a signing bonus, you won’t make any money for 5-6 years,” said Antonelli. “We have guys trying to support families on five to six thousand dollars a year.”
Minor League pitcher Kieran Lovegrove feels that MiLB players are dehumanized by MLB executives. “It’s employees are being treated like commodities to be traded. If they’re a show cow, great, put them in the fair. If they’re not, put them in the slaughterhouse,” said Lovegrove. “The basic creature comforts we’ve come to know in modern society do not exist for minor leaguers.”
Those who make the majors aren’t left with much, according to former MLB pitcher Peter Moylan. “There are a lot of guys in their mid-20s and this is all they have right now,” said Moylan. “They’ve given up their chance at college and whatever jobs they had coming out of high school and they decided to go this route… people pay money to watch these people play. The money should funnel down.”
With the MLB and MiLB season only spanning part of the year, the players are able to be classified as seasonal workers, meaning they don’t have to be paid based on the standards of minimum wage. Additionally, with MLB and other sports leagues having exceptions to anti-trust law since 1922, labor regulations are much looser.
Even once players have made the majors, they must last three years before they qualify for salaries above the minimum salary of $564,000, and six years before being able to negotiate a contract. MLB teams often manipulate the number of days a player is in the majors to further delay escalating contracts. Despite rising MLB revenue reaching $10.7 billion in 2019, MLB player salaries have fallen each year, MiLB player salaries have stalled and 40 minor league teams were cut, putting over a thousand players out of jobs. On February 24, the MLB announced that unless the MLBPA agreed to the MLB-proposed CBA before February 28, the season would be shortened. “I hate when people say ‘it’s the way we’ve always done it,’” said Moylan. “It’s a problem not just in baseball, but everywhere.”