At midnight on Dec. 2, Major League Baseball executives officially began a “lockout” of players from all team facilities. This results from the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement between the MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association which is the union representing around 1,200 players. Speaking for the MLBPA, executive director Tony Clark stated, “We remain committed to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that enhances competition, improves the product for our fans, and advances the rights and benefits of our membership.”
The MLBPA wants their new contract to address their concerns. Priorities include salaries for players that keep up with profits, more control over their location placement and an economic remodeling to encourage the development of smaller market teams and their players. MLB management has turned their back on contract negotiations and players by refusing to grant these basic concessions. This lockout is the first work stoppage in professional baseball since the 1994-95 MLB strike.
AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler expressed her federation’s solidarity with the MLBPA in a tweet on Dec. 3:
“[MLB management] would rather lock out their players & shut down a sport beloved by millions than agree to a contract that would benefit not only the players, but the game as a whole.
The @AFLCIO is standing with @MLBPA all the way!”
For an industry desperate to get back to its pre-COVID revenue of over $10 billion, which comes from the hard work of the players, the self-serving interests of MLB executives can only hurt players, workers and fans in one of the largest sports industries in the United States.
The ramifications of this lockout include no free agent signings or trades of MLBPA members. MLB players will still receive their signing bonuses during the lockout and the MLBPA can provide financial support to players who are in need. However, MLB players only receive a salary during the playing season; the lockout could carry over into the season if this conflict is left unresolved. MLBPA members can also play in other leagues during the lockout.
Additionally, players are barred from training or receiving medical care at MLB facilities for the duration of the lockout. This can pose a physical danger to players who are rehabilitating from injuries.
The plight of minor leaguers
Most players drafted by MLB teams spend the first seven years of their career bouncing between minor league clubs such as the Hartford Yard Goats or the El Paso Chihuahuas, colloquially known as “farm” teams. Minor league players earn as little as $500 per week.
Minor league players are considered seasonal employees, even though training and physical maintenance continues throughout the offseason. In total, minor league players work for their clubs for about 60 hours per week. Even in the highest minor league tier, called AAA (“Triple-A”), the average player makes just $14,700 per year.
Kieran Lovegrove, a minor league player who attempted suicide in 2015, told pro-labor news outlet More Perfect Union, “The basic creature comforts that we’ve come to know in modern society do not exist for minor leaguers.”
Many minor leaguers are forced to work additional jobs to make ends meet. Until this year, the MLB did not require minor league teams to provide housing to the players in their organizations, forcing players to share crowded apartments. The recent concession to provide housing for minor leaguers during the season was won through a prolonged struggle by minor league players and an organization called Advocates for Minor Leaguers, which is still demanding fair compensation from their employers. The minor league players are currently not unionized. AML is one way they are having a voice.
Lessons for the labor movement
In a statement of support for the MLBPA, AML pointed out, “The owners who have voluntarily decided to shut down Major League Baseball are the same individuals who abuse a legal loophole to pay minor leaguers poverty-level wages. As in the past, they use restrictive contracts and collusion to pay the vast majority of professional baseball players less than their actual worth.”
The formation of groups such as Advocates for Minor Leaguers reflects the labor movement that is being resurrected across the United States. Neglectful and exploitative owners and management are emblematic of the ruthless wage-cutting and deteriorating living conditions experienced by the U.S. working class, which stem from the perpetual drive for profits by multinational finance corporations.
Another example of exploitation MLB executives take part in is pocketing the profits that smaller teams (like the Oakland A’s) make from the league-wide revenue sharing of TV and other visual media with bigger teams (such as the New York Yankees). That money, instead of going towards player development and retiree support, is pocketed by owners and executives. This adds to the massive profits that owners and executives accrue, but does little to benefit players or stadium and media workers.
Athletes — and especially minor leaguers earning as low as $500 a week — are workers, just like the teachers, healthcare workers, Hollywood workers, John Deere workers, striking coal miners and Kellogg’s packers who remain on strike, whose labor struggles have culminated in the recent strike wave. The struggle of MLB players against their bosses and management can be seen as a struggle parallel to that of other U.S. workers who are fighting for better wages, healthcare, pensions, against dangerous hours and working conditions, to end unequal two-tiered systems, etc.
Not only are atheletes part of the labor struggle but also throughout the latter part of U.S. history, athletes have partaken in and been representative of social, political, and economic struggles against this parasitic system: from Muhammad Ali and his protest of the Vietnam War to Colin Kaepernick, Mookie Betts, Matt Kemp and the multitude of athletes who withheld their labor or took a knee in solidarity with the nationwide uprising that erupted following murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. All progressive and revolutionary people should stand in solidarity with baseball players and workers everywhere who fight to improve their labor conditions.
Featured image from the official MLBPA statement following the lockout.