It’s spring training, an annual rite of passage for the roughly 5,500 minor leaguers who are not being paid a nickel to train for six weeks in Florida and Arizona before launching into a five-month season when most of them will be paid a poverty-level salary with no overtime.
What better backdrop could there be for the resumption of testy negotiations between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball over a new Professional Baseball Agreement in a Dallas hotel conference room on Thursday?
“It’s spring training — it’s zero dollars an hour,” said former minor leaguer and St. Louis lawyer Garrett Broshuis this week. “That recent pay increase that MLB announced last week, that’s a good first step and we’re happy to see that first step but it’s still not enough during the season — a lot of guys are still going to live below the poverty line during the season, and it doesn’t do anything about the problem of spring training where you’re requiring guys to literally work for free.”
Broshuis is the lead attorney on a class-action lawsuit brought in 2014 by former minor leaguers against MLB to receive back pay and more pay — both in spring training and during the five-month minor league season — by having MLB adhere to minimum-wage laws.
Before they retreated to opposite sides of this labor battle, MLB and MiLB worked together toward a common goal by lobbying for the passage of the “Save America’s Pastime Act” (SAPA), a brief section tucked into a $1.3 trillion federal omnibus spending package signed into law two years ago that exempted MLB from having to adhere to federal minimum-wage and overtime laws for its minor league workforce.
One factor behind MiLB’s support of SAPA was the impression from MLB that not having it pass would mean the specter of having to cut teams if MLB, with more assistance from MiLB than before, had to pay minor leaguers minimum wage and, worse, overtime.
The Act did pass in March 2018, but then in 2019, MLB presented to MiLB its 42-team contraction plan anyway. That proposal, coming on the heels of SAPA cooperation, fostered much of the ill will that has permeated their talks.
“I definitely think there’s irony that minor league owners supported efforts to continue to, for lack of a better word, screw over minor league players in the belief that it would allow them to save minor league teams,” Broshuis said. “And yet, here they are now facing the potential closure of 25 percent of their teams despite that cooperation.”
The class-action suit is still alive.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last August that the case could continue at the state level in Arizona and Florida, where minor leaguers train, and in California, where the California League plays.
Next steps could include MLB petitioning the US Supreme Court by the end of next month to put the case on next year’s docket. If that’s denied, it could eventually reach the trial phase.
On the topic of a pay increase for minor leaguers, MLB raised the issue last week, announcing a unilateral pay increase for all minor leaguers ranging from 38 to 72 percent, starting after the 2021 season.
In a statement, an MLB spokesperson said Wednesday that “MLB is confident that we can modernize our player development system, building one fit for the 21st century that improves playing conditions and opportunities for players while protecting baseball in the communities where it is currently being played. Staying focused on those goals is what drove MLB to make the decision to unilaterally increase compensation for minor league players. However, the remaining priorities such as improving working conditions and reducing the travel burden for players can only be accomplished at the negotiating table with meaningful, collaborative participation from Minor League Baseball.”
Whether or not Thursday’s session ends with the exchange of now-familiar competing salty and snarky statements will not change the reality for minor leaguers who are living on $25 a day for food — breakfast, lunch, and housing are provided by teams — with no income and no time for a second job.
That reality, plus the prospect that there could be 25 percent fewer jobs available next spring, make this spring training more of a trial than ever for minor leaguers.
“It’s disappointing that Major League Baseball has taken the stance that in order to raise minor league wages, they think they also need to shutter teams,” Broshuis said. “It shouldn’t be a zero sum game like that, you should be able to reach a compromise and work things out. It seems to me there’s plenty of money in this game right now and the minor league players aren’t asking to get rich by any means. They’re just talking about basic minimum wage rights. A full-time minimum wage worker in this country makes around 15 grand a year, so surely you can meet minimum wage standards without shuttering teams like that.”