Three former minor league baseball players have sued Major League Baseball this week, alleging that they were underpaid for their labor and exploited by the contractual agreements minor leaguers must sign with their teams.
In the lawsuit, former players Aaron Senne, Michael Liberto and Oliver Odle, say that teams often pay players less than $7,500 per year while requiring unpaid work in violation of federal wage and labor standards. They also argue that the player contract minor leaguers are required to sign prohibits them from trying to play for other teams that might pay them more. The lawsuit “seeks class certification and damages for [Fair Labor and Standards Act] minimum wage and overtime violations, recordkeeping requirements, state wage and hour violations, payday requirements, waiting time penalties, itemized wage statement violations, unfair business practices and quantum meruit,” according to Courthouse News Service.
The suit claims that minor league players, who play in a farm system that classifies teams from Rookie ball (the lowest level) to AAA, the highest non-major league level, make between $1,100 and $2,500 per month before taxes during the baseball season. They are not paid during the off-season even though they are often required to perform team duties, the suit says. The Uniform Player Contract all minor leaguers sign grants their parent Major League team rights over their contract, which can be transferred to another team at any time. And while the UPC expressly grants the right to negotiate salaries, the players allege in the suit that teams often ignore that right in their own player manuals and codes.
Major League Baseball players are members of the MLB Players Association, a union that gives them the power to bargain for benefits and wages. And the MLBPA has been wildly successful in growing player salaries since it came into existence in the 1960s. Minor league players, however, aren’t allowed to join that union, even though they are covered by any agreements the MLBPA and MLB negotiate. The minor leaguers, all of whom hope to end up in the majors one day but few of whom actually will, have virtually no collective bargaining power.
This case will take some time to play itself out, as the first step will be whether or not a judge grants class certification that allows these three players to represent minor leaguers as a whole. And if they can form a class and win against baseball, that could cause some major changes in how the league operated with regard to its minor leagues. Whether they can win, as FanGraphs’ Wendy Thurm explains, likely depends on whether they are classified as employees who are subject to the Fair Labor and Standards Act, or whether they are seasonal employees who are exempt from it.
But this case is significant for another reason too, because Major League Baseball and its teams keep getting in trouble for wage and labor violations. The San Francisco Giants settled claims of wage, overtime, and record-keeping law violations in August, and the team agreed to pay nearly $545,000 in back wages to its clubhouse employees. In October, the Giants were back under investigation for similar wage theft claims, as were the Miami Marlins. And lest it seem that they were alone, a Major League Baseball letter sent to all 30 teams at the time described wage and labor violations as “endemic to our industry.”
Major League Baseball raked in $8 billion in revenues last year. Those revenues have grown from $1.4 billion in 1995, and its hard to argue that the league has ever been healthier financially than it is today. The question, then, is why a league that is hardly struggling financially is struggling so hard to pay so many of its workers.