Over the past few months, within the estimable pages of this very site, Nathaniel Grow and I have both discussed at some length the consequences of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association’s exclusion of minor leaguers. The most obvious, of course, is minor leaguers’ pay. But there’s another less obvious consequence of the MLBPA’s current membership approach, stemming from the reality that minor leaguers become major leaguers. Not all of them, of course, but there are very few players who jump straight to the bigs without having ever graced a minor-league field. And that means that the vast majority of major leaguers will spend at least some period of time without union representation, during which they will do things, and say things, which eventually will reflect on the union and its membership as a whole.
Now, unions serve a lot of purposes — more than just negotiating for higher wages. They improve workplace safety, secure healthcare and other benefits, and can provide a counterbalance against the structural mismatch of a large employer. But they do all of this by representing their members, and helping those members put their best foot forward, whether by training or otherwise.
What unions can’t (or don’t) do, however, is provide these services for non-members. This makes sense: a union won’t want to make non-members better able to compete with people whose interests it’s protecting. So while it’s somewhat understandable that the current members of the MLBPA don’t want to expand their protections to include non-members, the problem is that minor leaguers and major leaguers don’t really compete for the same job in the sense that a union electrician and non-union electrician compete for the same job. When a minor leaguer gets called up, he becomes a union member. Two 40-man roster players competing for a spot are both already union members. So excluding minor leaguers doesn’t limit competition; it just makes future members worse off.
This has consequences beyond just pay. Recall that there was recently a kerfuffle after some rather offensive tweets from Josh Hader, Sean Newcomb, and Trea Turner resurfaced in July. I reached out to the MLBPA about their situations, and an MLBPA Spokesperson told me that “[w]e’re asking players and their representatives on their behalf to examine whether anything they may have posted on social-media accounts may be considered hurtful or offensive to someone and, if so, to strongly consider removing it.” The MLBPA’s representative also told me that “sparing people from hurtful comments is a primary concern” of the MLBPA, “along with the duties we have to protect our members’ privacy and reputations.”
The idea, though, that the MLBPA is asking its members and representatives to examine their social-media history is something of an imperfect solution. The agents work for the players, and it’s probably outside their job description — or, at least, at the very fringes of it — to check their clients’ social-media accounts or provide them sensitivity training. (“Hire me to negotiate your contract! I’ll give you sensitivity training!” isn’t the best sales pitch.) If the MLBPA wants to address the problem, an easy solution would be to give minor leaguers sensitivity and social-media training as part of their union membership before they reach the major leagues. That way, any problems could be addressed before they cause an embarrassment at the All-Star Game.
This is actually not unprecedented. Many unions, in the United States and around the world, provide training to their members on sensitivity or cross-cultural understanding. Yes, Hader, Newcomb, and Turner wrote their respective tweets in high school, but imagine if they had received sensitivity training when they were drafted, as opposed to years later after the tweets had been sitting on the internet for a half-decade.
Of course, to do this, they’d have to make minor leaguers members of the MLBPA. There are a few different ways this could happen. Minor leaguers could be full-fledged union members, with minor-league jobs receiving a different classification from major-league roster spots. If the MLBPA wanted to accept Rob Manfred’s characterization of minor leaguers as apprentices (which deserves its own article), a model exists for that, as well: apprenticeships with family-sustaining wages have long been familiar to unions. There could be other benefits for players, too, in that salaries, housing, and field conditions could be collectively bargained. And there would be one, immense benefit for the union, in the form of greater control over what face it presents to the world. And remember, the MLBPA says itself that it has a duty to protect its members’ reputations. That’s true, of course, and it’s something unions can do well.
Sensitivity training is not, of course, a panacea. Some people will take it and make regrettable choices anyway. Fallibility is, after all, the very heart of the human condition. But the best way to protect a person’s reputation is to teach that person how not to damage it in the first place. This way, minor leaguers would receive the benefits of union membership, and the union would receive the benefit of knowing who its members are before they reach the bright lights of the big leagues.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.