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Why Baseball Minor Leaguers Voted to Unionize

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Minor league baseball has long been notorious for its low wages and grueling working conditions. 

But that could soon change, as players are on the brink of one of the most sweeping unionization drives that professional sports has seen in years.

On Tuesday, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) announced that more than half of minor league players voted to unionize and that it is seeking voluntary recognition from Major League Baseball (MLB) to represent minor leaguers. If the league refuses, a National Labor Relations Board election that would provide a referendum on the state of the changing sports labor landscape is the likely next step. 

Dr. Travers, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Simon Fraser University who uses a single name, said that sport has long been treated as a kind of ?“quasi profession” with different cultural norms than many other industries?—?but that appears to be changing. 

“There’s an ideology of luck,” they said. ?“There’s this idea of, ?‘We’re just so lucky, we’re so grateful to even have a chance at this dream,’ but if you actually look at what’s happening, you have a labor pool that is vastly under-remunerated, who don’t have the same protections that workers in other sectors do.”

Rise in Athletes Unionizing

Athletes across sports appear to be wising up.

The U.S. women’s national soccer team won an equal pay agreement in their most recent collective bargaining agreement. National Basketball Association players organized around the racial justice uprisings of 2020, while college athletes are now being compensated for the use of their name and likeness. 

The rise in organizing in sports has coincided with a massive surge in labor activity across the country, which has seen labor unions hit their highest approval rating since 1965. 

Baseball, whose extensive and precarious minor league system is perhaps unrivaled in American professional sports, has been particularly ripe for collective action. 

“Baseball’s minor leagues have long been a place of hyper exploitation, where ?‘disposable populations’ essentially grind out a living under extraordinarily difficult conditions and where baseball brass, the people who run the sport, keep players in line in a certain respect through poverty wages,” said Jules Boykoff, professor of politics at Pacific University. 

Fighting for Higher Wages

That is no exaggeration. While the average value of an MLB franchise is more than $2 billion, most minor league players make, on average, less than $14,000 per year?—?and are only paid during the regular season and not for work during spring training or the offseason. This is by design: in 2018, the MLB successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation exempting baseball players from the federal minimum wage and collecting overtime pay. 

Groups of minor league players and activists have been organizing for years, but Boykoff said it’s no coincidence that the momentum behind organizing minor league baseball has crescendoed as the broader labor movement has grown in strength. 

Indeed, the push to unionize minor league players comes as the MLBPA this week took a significant step to align itself with the broader labor movement and announced its affiliation with the AFL-CIO.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler pledged in a statement announcing the MLBPA’s affiliation that the union would ?“bring our strength” to the fight to organize minor league baseball, while MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark told HuffPost?’s Dave Jamieson that his union wants to be ?“part of the broader labor discussion.”

The new affiliation promises to not only lend organizing muscle to the minor league unionizing fight, but to also situate major league players in the same union as a number of stadium concession workers represented by UNITE HERE, who have notably agitated this year for better wages and working conditions in places like Los Angeles. 

Baseball Legislation

The new alignment with the broader labor movement also comes as Congress has threatened to revoke Major League Baseball’s unique antitrust exemption for its treatment of the minor league’s franchises and players, which MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said would cause irreparable harm in a July letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In March, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced legislation called the Save American Baseball Act which would eliminate the exemption. At the time, he said, ?“These are baseball oligarchs who, over the last year, eliminated their affiliation with over 40 minor league teams, not only causing needless economic pain and suffering, but also breaking the hearts of fans in small and mid-sized towns all over America.”

Boykoff said that federal legislation revoking the antitrust exemption could go a long way in shoring up labor protections for players as well as potentially protecting communities who value baseball as more than a means of enriching ultra-wealthy owners, as Major League Baseball angles to eliminate minor league teams and jobs to save money in the coming years.

Players are Workers

Ryan Gauthier, a lawyer and professor at Thompson Rivers University, said that if the unionization push is successful and players win living wages, Major League Baseball may retaliate by contracting more teams, much as Starbucks has closed a number of newly unionized stores this year. 

At the same time, that threat of organizing might make the security of union protections all the more attractive in an industry long sustained by players living on the edge. 

“I think a lot of athletes in the past were very much, ?‘I’m lucky to do this, it’s for the love of the game, thank you Mr. Owner for giving me my opportunity, I’d gladly do this for free,’” Gauthier said. ?

“But I think a lot of players realize now: they’re workers.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 8, 2022. Published with permission.

About the Author: Abe Asher is a journalist whose reporting on politics, protest, and the climate has been published in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets.


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Professional athletes stage a historic wildcat strike, this week in the war on workers

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As strikes go, there weren’t a large number of workers involved in the most consequential work stoppages of the past week. And professional athletes are often framed as something other than real workers. But make no mistake, when the players on the Milwaukee Bucks said they weren’t playing their playoff game on Wednesday in protest over the police shooting of Jacob Blake, that was a wildcat strike, and it turned into a seriously successful one.

In the tradition of unions organizing for the broader public interest—as when teachers in Chicago and other cities negotiate for services that benefit their students outside of school as well as in class, for instance, or when unions pour money into raising the minimum wage for all workers—the players of the NBA and the MLB and the WNBA and other leagues made advances for everyone. Turning arenas into polling places could help with voting lines in key cities around the country. And the players—the workers—highlighted a major injustice in this country peacefully though not without disruption, again challenging the “I’m in favor of peaceful protest, just not riots, except oh, by the way, I was really really mad at Colin Kaepernick” crowd. As Hamilton Nolan writes, the athletes also reminded workers that they, too, have leverage.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on August 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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California Moves To Pay Professional Cheerleaders Minimum Wage

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katelyn harropThanks to what is believed to be first of its kind legislation, legal minimum wages and worker protections may be on the horizon for California’s professional cheerleaders.

A bill proposed by State Rep. Lorena Gonzalez (D) in January, and approved by the Senate on Monday, requires California sports teams to adhere to state and federal minimum wage requirements and to provide overtime pay and sick leave to professional cheerleaders.

Despite the athletic skill and training required for participation in professional-level cheering — plus the branding and visual expectations that come along with acting as the public face of a sports team — cheerleaders are often considered independent contractors and therefore are not protected by minimum wage and other labor standards.

This is particularly jarring considering professional cheerleaders act as some of the most public symbols for leagues like the NFL, which is worth over $33 billion, according to recent estimates.

“A.B. 202 would explicitly require that professional sports teams provide cheerleaders with the same rights and benefits as other employees, protecting against the sort of financial and personal abuses that have been reported throughout the country,” said Gonzalez, who is a former college cheerleader herself, in an April press release. “A.B. 202 simply demands that any professional sports team — or their chosen contractor — treat the women on the field with the same dignity and respect that we treat the guy selling beer.”

A similar bill has been proposed in New York State, but Gonzalez’s will be the first to hit a governor’s desk. Both measures come as a response to a string of lawsuits brought against NFL teams over the last two years. The first suit was brought by a former Oakland Raiders cheerleader who claims that she and other members of the cheer team were paid less than $5.00 an hour and were denied overtime and other benefits associated with standard labor laws.

In bringing the lawsuit against the Raiders, attorney Sharon Vinik dismissed the team’s justification for the contractor status of the cheer squad, stating that the NFL team dictated the choreography and music used by the cheerleaders among other strict limitations. The defense also rejected the common claim that the opportunity to cheer for a professional team opened up other doors such as endorsements and modeling, and therefore acted as a career stepping stone.

“If you are a young starting quarterback, you get lot of notoriety for that, but you also get paid for that work,” said Vinik at the time. “The fact that the women might get some opportunities doesn’t justify not paying them.”

According to the Associated Press, Vinik thinks the new California legislation is a good step, but one that may not be big enough to actually change the payment culture surrounding professional cheerleading.

The Raiderette’s lawsuit was followed by similar legal complaints from other teams, including cheerleaders from the Buffalo Jills cheer squad, who claim that they were not paid for up to 20 hours of their weekly work with the Buffalo-based NFL team.

While the new California legislation may be a step in the right direction, the vast majority of professional sports teams and states have yet to address the significant wage gap and labor violations associated with the professional cheerleading industry.

This blog was originally posted on July 1, 2015 on Think Progress. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Katelyn Harrop. Katelyn Harrop is a summer intern at ThinkProgress. She is a rising senior at Ithaca College, where she is pursuing a B.A. in journalism and a minor in international politics. Katelyn is an editor for Buzzsaw Magazine, Ithaca College’s independent, student-run publication, and a staff writer for the community radio station in Ithaca, New York. Katelyn is originally from McMinnville, Oregon.


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What Wal-Mart and Lance Armstrong Have in Common

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Leo GerardOddly, the top international cyclist—Lance Armstrong—and the top international retailer—Wal-Mart—revealed last week that they have much in common.

No, not doping. 

It’s their dopey concept of the atonement process.

Armstrong, already punished for misdeeds he’d denied, took to television on Thursday to finally confess. But he didn’t apologize. He didn’t follow the redemption steps: admission and regret; a pledge to reform and a plea for forgiveness, then penance. Wal-Mart didn’t follow those steps either. Its CEO made national news last week when he announced the retail giant would hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years and buy $50 billion more in American-made products over the next 10. But Wal-Mart has never admitted wrongdoing or expressed remorse.

More American manufacturing and more jobs are always good. Thank you, Wal-Mart.

But, like Armstrong’s admission, Wal-Mart’s announcement was met with skepticism because the retailer skipped atonement steps. Meaningless to the economy, The Atlantic wrote of the Wal-Mart promise. “A public relations stunt,” Time wrote.

Wal-Mart has much for which to atone. There is, for example, its leadership in blocking an effort to improve safety at factories in Bangladesh, where 112 workers would later die in a fire; its serial bribing of Mexican officials to circumvent regulations, and its snubbing of American warehouse laborers who are seeking better working conditions.

Let’s start in Bangladesh. There, Wal-Mart buys more than $1 billion in garments each year. The lure is the lowest garment factory wages in the world—$37 a month. But that’s not enough. Wal-Mart and other garment purchasers demand such low prices from Bangladesh factories that managers cut costs in ways that endanger workers.

After two Bangladesh factory fires in 2010 killed 50 workers, labor leaders, manufacturers, government officials and retailers like Wal-Mart met in the Bangladesh capital. A New York Times investigation found that Wal-Mart was instrumental in blocking a plan proposed at that April 2011 meeting for Western retailers to finance fire safety improvements.

Just a little over 18 months later, 112 garment workers died in a horrific fire at the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh, where inspections repeatedly had revealed serious fire hazards. The New York Times found that during those 18 months, six Wal-Mart suppliers had used the Tazreen factory. In fact, in the two months before the fire, the Times found that 55 percent of Tazreen factory production was devoted to Wal-Mart suppliers.

 A month after the fatal fire, a Wal-Mart executive promised the company would not buy garments from unsafe factories, but the giant retailer hasn’t offered any solution for improving conditions in Bangladesh factory fire traps, and a Wal-Mart executive has admitted the industry’s safety monitoring system is seriously flawed.

Now, let’s go to Mexico. There, Wal-Mart executives routinely bribed government officials to get what the retailer wanted—mostly permits to locate Wal-Mart stores, according to a massive New York Times investigation that involved gathering tens of thousands of documents regarding Wal-Mart permits. Times reporters David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab wrote last December:

“Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited. It used bribes to subvert democratic governance …It used bribes to circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction. It used bribes to outflank rivals.”

After being informed of the bribes by someone involved, Wal-Mart briefly investigated but then squelched that inquiry. Now Wal-Mart is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission.

Here in the United States, workers at warehouses contracted by Wal-Mart in Southern California and Joliet, Ill., walked off the job last year protesting low pay, lack of benefits, unsafe working conditions and faulty equipment. Wal-Mart indicated it might discuss solutions with the workers, but last week, the retail giant rebuffed them.

Wal-Mart’s promise of 100,000 jobs for veterans is a good thing. Even if some of those jobs will be part-time. Even if the average Wal-Mart wage is $8.81 an hour —$15,576 a year—hardly enough for a veteran, or anyone else, to live on. Even if Wal-Mart will pay less than half those wages because the federal government will give companies that hire veterans tax credits of up to $9,600 a year for each veteran they employ.

Wal-Mart’s promise to buy an additional $5 billion a year in American-made products is a good thing. Even if $5 billion is a tiny number to Wal-Mart, which sold $444 billion worth of stuff last year. Even if Wal-Mart’s demand for ever decreasing prices from suppliers is the reason many say they moved factories overseas where laborers are overworked, underpaid and endangered and where environmental are fire safety laws are ignored. Even if Wal-Mart is buying more American not out of patriotism but because it makes sense financially with both foreign wages and transportation costs rising.

More American manufacturing and more jobs are always good. Thank you, Wal-Mart.

But Wal-Mart and Armstrong shouldn’t be surprised if their schemes don’t win them reconciliation with the American people. Armstrong’s failure to apologize reinforced the sense that he fessed up now only to secure the reprieve he wants from his punishment, from his banishment from certain sports. And Wal-Mart’s failure to even acknowledge that it has not been a perfect yellow smiley face of a corporation only evokes cynicism about its motives. No remorse, no redemption.

Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers union is a sponsor of In These Times.

This article was originally published by Working In These Times on January 22, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.


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