Baseball’s minor leaguers swept up in organized labor wave

By: - September 6, 2022 11:40 am

Connor Johnstone, a right-handed pitcher for the Gwinnett, Ga., Stripers, supports the nascent union drive signing up minor leaguers. Credit: Bernie Connelly/Gwinnett Stripers

The rise in union organizing around the U.S. because of a tight labor market has swept up in its wave the most egregious employer in all of American sports, minor league baseball.

On the eve of Labor Day, minor leaguers — there are about 3,500 of them — signed union authorization cards signaling their support for organizing around a union, a bid to join their big brothers in the Major Leagues who belong to the most powerful union in sports.

The stories are legendary of six minor leaguers crammed into a two-bedroom apartment because of their pitiful salaries, pitchers ordering a pizza during a rain delay and finding out the pizza delivery kid makes more than a professional athlete, or the 6-foot-7 pitcher sleeping all spring training on a couch 6-feet long because he wasn’t paid by the team for that six weeks of work.

In 2018, Congress passed the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” which exempted minor league players from the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act. It meant teams were not obligated to meet federal minimum wage standards and could regard players as “seasonal” employees, and not have to pay them for spring training before the season started. The roots of the poor labor standards for minor leaguers goes back to the 1930s.

Players for the Gwinnett Stripers, a minor league team of the Atlanta Braves, were opening emails Wednesday from the Major League Players Association asking them to unite. The Stripers were encouraging each other to back the union, several players said.

“I think it’ll be great for minor league players to have a voice,” said Connor Johnstone, 27, a right-handed pitcher for the Stripers. “There’s way more minor league guys than there are major league players. We’re the ones that are going to be filtering through eventually. I feel like if we actually have a voice the game will change for the better.”

The minor leaguers are joining the vortex of workers in 2022 taking advantage of a tight labor market in the United States and Georgia, in particular. The state’s 2.8 percent unemployment rate is historically low and beats the national average by nine-tenths in the most recent reports available. Employers need help and employees have an uncommon upper hand.

Rally to unions

The movement also has steam because Americans are rallying to unions, according to a new Gallup poll. CEO pay has risen 1,322 percent since 1978 and that fuels the rank-and-file discontent.

Companies like Apple ($2.51 trillion market capitalization) and Amazon ($1.28 trillion market cap) are seeing a pushback from employees eager for a bigger share of the money and better working conditions and benefits.

College athletes are also cashing in on the sudden strength of workers in the country. Even concession workers at stadiums are starting to organize, not just grumble.

Matt Knepper, assistant professor in the Department of Economics at the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, said there is a sort of “contagion element” in shops like Starbucks and Apple where employees are petitioning for better pay and better benefits.

“There is a resurgence and renewed interest in unionization,” Knepper said. And it applies to a variety of sectors across the economy, including baseball, he said.

“The labor market is historically tight right now, in spite of the Federal Reserve’s action on interest rates,” Knepper said. “In the aggregate job reports, the job growth doesn’t seem to have slowed substantially. I remember reading a couple months ago about Tesla laying off employees and Facebook laying off employees and people took that as a sign that bad times were on the horizon.

“Then the next month we sell the jobs report, and growth there. These news stories about layoffs can be filed under anecdotes.”

Major League Baseball, an $11 billion a year enterprise, took steps to cut costs in the minor leagues two years ago. The league essentially took control of the minors and cut 43 teams from its feeder system and reduced the draft from 40 rounds to 20 rounds.

But the union surge nationwide, not to mention sustained pressure from lawsuits against MLB over how it treated its farmhands, seems poised to cost the industry some money.

It’s about time, said Johnstone. The Stripers pitcher, who lives in Smyrna in the off-season, said he makes between $1,100 and $1,200 every two weeks. He is not paid for staying in shape for the off-season, which is part of his job.

Many minor leaguers who are not in “big league camp” in spring training typically are not paid for those six weeks. Johnstone was in big league camp last spring and he received the meal money that big leaguers got and he was able to pay some expenses with that.

“From the talk in the clubhouse, everybody’s excited and everybody’s signing to make sure this happens,” Johnstone said. “It would just be so big for the game of baseball to give all these guys in the minor leagues something to look forward to.”

Grievances

Apple and Amazon workers might feel the squeeze of their bosses, but their level of grievance doesn’t approach the minor leaguers.

“If you think Triple-A pay is bad,” Johnstone said, “the guys in high-A ball get half of that. If those guys can get something where they can have enough money to just train in the off-season and afford rent, and afford food, and strictly try to get better, the game is only going to elevate.”

Johnstone’s time in A ball in Kissimmee one summer included an attic apartment in a house for $500 a month, which is all he could afford. The landlady locked the thermostat on 80 and would not adjust it, even with the heat rising to the attic.

Johnstone has a physics degree from Wake Forest so he has a Plan B. Actually, he has a Plan B and Plan C. He started a woodworking business in his garage and sold everything from cutting boards to furniture to make ends meet in the winter.

Apple workers, meanwhile, have higher pay than minor leaguers, but still mounted a union drive at a store in the Cobb County, Ga., Cumberland Mall. The effort fizzled out several days before the vote to unionize. The Communications Workers of America insisted it was because of anti-union activities by Apple.

Knepper said some union efforts fade because the employer makes significant concessions.

“I don’t exactly know the circumstances surrounding that [Apple at Cumberland Mall], but I’m wondering if they reached some kind of agreement. That’s speculation, but it’s happened before,” he said. “Did Apple give them something in return for their cooperation and not unionizing?”

The CWA did not return e-mail messages or calls for comment.

Union organizing heated up ahead of Labor Day. Delta Air Line pilots, who say they have not had a raise in three years, picketed at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport on Thursday. Starbucks and Amazon workers continued to press their organizing activities around the country.

“There’s a lot of momentum in this movement,” said UGA’s Knepper. “Groups that historically have not participated are participating.”

Like the minor leaguers.

This article was first published by the Georgia Recorder, part of the States Newsroom network of news bureaus that includes the Florida Phoenix.

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Ray Glier
Ray Glier

Ray Glier is a freelance Journalist in Atlanta. He has covered local and national sports for 45 years for The New York Times, USA Today, The Boston Globe, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and many others.

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