There is an ominous silence around the offices of Major League Baseball these days, the kind of silence that is awaiting the other shoe to drop.
The Major League Players Association, the most powerful union in professional sports, decided last month to send an invitation to minor league players to affiliate.
“Join us,’’ the big leaguers said. “See what we can do for you.’’
That could be plenty, given the way minor leaguers are treated by MLB. They are the underbelly of the game, cannon fodder who do not share in the benefits that Major League players enjoy.
MLB and the players union have always had a cantankerous relationship with a history of strikes and work stoppages dotting their collective landscape. The most recent lockout, of course, delayed the start of the current season by a week.
The ugliest episode was the effort by the owners to restrict free agent contracts by colluding – conspiring really to refuse to offer competitive contracts. The players filed collusion grievances and collected $113 million in arbitration awards. So, you can see why management does not have warm and fuzzy feelings for the union.
Now the MLBPA has sent out authorization cards to minor leaguers offering them the opportunity to become union members. That would change 100 years or so of history and you know how precious history is to MLB given its recent affection for monkeying with the rules of the game.
The National Labor Relations Board honors two methods for forming a union. If 30 percent of workers sign a card or petition requesting a union, the NLRB will conduct an election. The second way is for management to voluntarily recognize the union based on the authorization cards. The second method, based on MLB’s relationship with the Players Association is unlikely to happen.
For minor league players, signing bonuses are often generous. Life after that is not. Most minor league players earn less than $12,000 a year, below the federal poverty line.
MLB has recognized the issue. There was a $185 million settlement of a lawsuit with thousands of current and for minor league players last month. Salaries range from $290 for Single-A players to $700 for Triple-A players. Teams must, for the first time, provide housing options for most players.
And in this landscape the MLBPA is offering a lifeline. It would be shocking if the minor leaguers don’t accept it.
Was that noise at MLB the sound of the other shoe dropping?