So, You Want to Seize the Means of Production

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Unionizing a workplace isn’t as simple as buying a bullhorn and stamping out some buttons, though both are obviously essential steps in the process. It requires huge amounts of organizing effort, cajoling, and, unfortunately, paperwork.

Last week, the MLBPA announced that it had sent out authorization cards to thousands of minor league players; if a majority of players give the union consent to negotiate on their behalf, federal labor law will require MLB to negotiate collectively with those players over pay and working conditions. Tuesday, the MLBPA announced that a majority of minor league players had signed and returned those cards, and sent a letter to the league asking for recognition.

The hardest thing to do in sports is hit a baseball, but following the internecine contours of collective bargaining procedure has to be up there on the list. So let’s trace out the next few steps in a process that will likely take months, if not years, to complete. And since minor league ballplayers are merely one of many groups undertaking high-profile unionization efforts these days, knowing how this works might help you impress people the next time, say, the Starbucks union comes up at a party. (I need to start going to cooler parties.)

When a labor union asserts that it has the support of a majority of workers, the employer has two options. The first is to voluntarily recognize the union, at which point the two parties shake hands and schedule the first few bargaining sessions. That’s not always as simple as it sounds; sometimes the employer and union haggle over the specific composition of the bargaining unit — i.e., which workers count as workers for the purposes of defining the guild — and sometimes the employer just drags things out for the sake of it. But it’s easier than the alternative.

If MLB chooses not to recognize the union voluntarily, the question goes to an election administered by the National Labor Relations Board. The rules are the same — a simple majority wins — but these votes are counted by secret ballot. Up until the late 1960s, an employer had to establish a good-faith reason to hold an election rather than accepting a card check as proof of majority support, and the NLRB’s new general counsel is pushing for a return to that standard. But as of right now, it’s common for an employer to insist on this formality.

Union recognition doesn’t always follow this pattern; the successful effort to unionize Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse involved filing for an election with only 30% of the workforce’s signatures — the labor movement’s equivalent of shooting the moon. However, the default play for unions is to start the card drive before any public announcement; at a small, centralized workplace like a coffee shop, retail store, or newsroom, organizers usually try to get as much as 75% of workers to sign cards before any public announcement. That allows them to present the formation of a union to management as a fait accompli. The proposition is this: If you bring this to a formal vote, you will lose, so why not save yourself the time, aggravation, and legal fees?

MLB has thus far refrained from revealing its strategy, but there are advantages to forcing a formal election. It takes time to organize an election; the few weeks from petition to election isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but management can use that time to persuade and cajole workers into voting against unionization. There are only a few weeks left in the minor league season, but that’s still an opportunity for the league to talk players into voting no. If a card check reveals a 75% majority in favor of unionizing, that’s a lot to ask, but if it’s closer to 50/50, management might have a real chance of winning the election. After the MLBPA racked up a majority of signatures in a little over a week, it seems likely that more signatures are on the way, but that’s not a done deal. It’s unlikely the MLBPA would lose an election, but it’s theoretically possible. And because minor league players are so grievously underpaid, MLB stands to lose quite a bit of money by going to the bargaining table. Even a remote chance of winning an election could be worth chasing.

Or maybe it’s a matter of principle for MLB; even a charitable reading of the league’s bargaining tactics over the 2020 restart and the recent lockout reveals a side that prefers to fight over every inch of territory when it comes to labor relations. This is, it bears repeating, the league that lobbied Congress to exempt it from minimum wage law. Procedurally, MLB has nothing to lose by playing hardball and insisting on an election.

And the smart money is on MLB doing precisely that. But let’s at least entertain the possibility, if only for argument’s sake, that MLB might recognize the union voluntarily. MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said Wednesday morning that they’re at least talking about it. Would the league stand to gain anything from making such a gesture?

I’ll preface this by acknowledging that my outlook on labor issues — both within baseball and more broadly — is generally pro-worker. So if Rob Manfred doesn’t trust my advice, I don’t necessarily blame him. But here’s the argument, nevertheless.

MLB is under intense scrutiny at the moment. It just settled a nine-figure class action lawsuit over alleged violations of overtime and minimum wage law. Public pressure to take care of minor league players is finally mounting as fans realize that minor leaguers don’t get paid millions to play a kids’ game — in fact, they barely get paid thousands. Most worrying, the Senate Judiciary Committee has issued the Santa Claus Threat to MLB: We see you when you’re sleeping; we know when you’re awake; we know if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake. (Drawing the attention of the Senate Judiciary Committee is generally not a sign that things are going well.) Both parties have differing, even contradictory bones to pick with MLB, and even the treasured antitrust exemption could hang in the balance if the league doesn’t act right.

Companies from Amazon to Starbucks to Boeing have bet big that they’re so rich and so essential to American life that they can go scorched earth on unions and still come out ahead. And maybe MLB is in that group. But with Congress watching, it’s a risk.

And there’s an even more important constituency than Congress: the members of the proposed union. Labor activists will talk your ear off about how empowering and constructive it is to start or join a union, and all of that is true. But organizing a workplace and negotiating a first collective bargaining agreement is also a giant pain in the ass. For this reason, most workers won’t bother with the effort — to say nothing of the risk — unless they view their employer as a genuine adversary. There is no radicalizing force as powerful as a truly exploitative boss, and even a little goodwill can go a long way toward tamping down enthusiasm for union activity.

That’s why the break rooms at tech companies have foosball tables and free snacks. That’s why Apple offered retail workers 10% raises after a handful of stores unionized this summer. And that was clearly at least part of the thought process behind increased minimum salaries and the new minor league housing initiative announced last year.

Once bargaining actually starts, expect MLB to hold just as hard a line as it did during the past two negotiations with the big leaguers. And if you thought the lockout was a siege, remember that the minor leaguers will be coming in with less institutional momentum, no existing CBA to work from, and a bargaining unit more than four times the size of the current MLBPA. This is probably going to be an acrimonious and protracted negotiation — and MLB, paradoxically, might be better off in the long run by recognizing the union and getting started as quickly as possible.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic,, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

This was excellent, Michael! Thanks!