Court win for another exploited worker class: Minor-league baseball players
Minor League baseball field in Millcreek Township, Pa. | Jack Hanrahan/Erie-Times News via AP

SAN FRANCISCO—Imagine you’re at a workplace where you make $3,000 over six months—and must work the other six for free. Where you work 50-70 hours over six days a week, and you don’t get overtime.

And a job where your boss can ship you to another employer at a moment’s notice, or ship you out. And where, to survive, you must room with five or six other guys—it’s an all-male worksite—in an apartment, and some of the guys bring wives and kids.

Welcome to the wonderful (?) world of minor league baseball. Those were the working conditions in baseball’s bush leagues that led ex-minor leaguer Dan Peltier to liken the minors to “indentured servitude of the 1700s.”

But all those conditions may be about to change. Definitely, money will.

Some 34 former minor leaguers, in a class action suit that took seven years to resolve, have reached a settlement with Major League Baseball, which effectively runs the minors, for what news services estimate is approximately $200 million restitution for years of unpaid overtime and minimum wage violations, all due to the bosses’ defiance of federal labor wage and hours law.

And in their case, which will be the subject of a July 11 settlement hearing at the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, the ex-players also may find out if they win not just on wages and working conditions of the past, but on their demand that the jurists ban MLB’s owners from imposing such exploitation on future generations of ballplayers.

Naturally, the obtuse moguls who own the 30 major league teams never saw this one coming, even though the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago approved a Ninth Circuit certification of the minor leaguers as an exploited class.

Most of the 34 played for one or two major league farm systems, but one, Brandon Pinckney, played for four—Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Oakland—from 2003to 2010. Others got shuttled and shuffled from team to team. The entire class is in the thousands.

The suit, filed May 20, 2015, in the Ninth Circuit, said the big leagues systematically shorted the minor leaguers’ pay, which has been rock bottom for decades. Not mentioned: The few stars who were high draft choices and earned major league pay even while riding buses in the bushes. Oh, did we mention the long bus rides from town to town? No pay for those, either.

Not only did the minor leagues not earn the federal $7.25 hourly minimum wage, they didn’t get overtime pay, either. Or pay at all during spring training. And if the majors required minor leaguers to undertake off-season conditioning, as the Florida Marlins required from lead plaintiff Aaron Senne, they didn’t pay then, either.

At minor league clubs, 50- to 70-hour workweeks were routine, the suit said. The pay wasn’t and isn’t: $3,000-$7,500 on average for seasons lasting three to six months, depending on which minor league level the players toiled at. The lowest-paid, in the Rookie leagues, got $1,100 per month for a three-month season—and didn’t get their first paychecks until the end of June.

Minor league baseball “traces its roots to the 19th century,” the suit said. “Unfortunately for many of its employees, its wage and labor practices remain stuck there,” it deadpanned.

Testifying to Congress in 1997, Peltier said the 19th century comparison was too modern. He likened the minors to working conditions of 400 years ago…indentured servitude.

“When you first sign, you are owned by that team for basically seven seasons. A team can buy you, sell you, send you to another country, or fire you whenever they want. They can cut you if you get hurt,” Peltier continued, in testimony included in the court papers.

“A player, on the other hand, cannot try to play for someone else. He can’t try out for his home team. You have to play for the team that drafted you even if they are loaded at your position….Obsession with making the majors should not be a justification for the current treatment of minor league players, and I certainly hope it would not be used as an excuse to give major league and minor league owners a legal blank check.”

“MLB’s longstanding exemption from antitrust laws allows it to openly collude on the working conditions for the development of its chief commodity: Young baseball players,” the original court papers add. “This antitrust exemption, however, in no way provides an exemption from the federal and state wage and hour laws the defendants”—owners—”routinely violate.”

The “major league cartel…actively and openly colludes on many aspects of minor league play and working conditions,” the original suit says. That collusion includes wages, contract terms, drug testing, and discipline. From 1976 to 2015, minor leaguers’  average pay rose 75%, inflation was 400% and major league pay—thanks to a strong union—rose 2000%.

The blank check for the owners wasn’t the sole problem. The pay was so low minor leaguers either must stay for the season with “host families,” who open their homes for free, or live five or six to an apartment in order to make the rent. That’s five or six players, some of them with spouses and kids, too.

And while the Major League Baseball Players Association is one of the nation’s most successful unions, the minor leaguers have none at all. “Efforts to unionize minor leaguers have been unsuccessful because minor leaguers fear retaliation by the seemingly omnipotent defendants,” the major league clubs, the court papers said. Sound familiar?

Whether minor leaguers can unionize once the suit is settled is unknown. “MLB’s exemption from antitrust laws has only made it easier” to depress minor leaguers’ pay, the court papers noted. But their lawyers said on May 10 that they’re “pleased to report the parties have reached a settlement in principle in this case, subject to court approval. We look forward to filing preliminary approval papers with the court and cannot comment further until then.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.