It’s been reported today that three former minor league players, Aaron Senne, Michael Liberto and Oliver Odle are suing Major League Baseball, commissioner Bug Selig, the Kansas City Royals, Miami Marlins and San Francisco Giants in a U.S. District Court.
They’re making the case that the allegedly offending parties have violated wage and overtime laws by continuing to pay minor league baseball players wages that are far below the poverty line. The numbers that they cite show that most minor league baseball players earn between $3,000 and $7,500 for their five-month season which sits far below what minimum-wage fast food industry workers would earn. Another concern is that minor league salaries have risen at rates below the inflation rate while major league salaries have risen by over 2,000% since 1976.
One of the biggest concerns that the suing parties are raising is the fact that minor leaguers are not unionized and have no say in collectively bargaining their conditions of employment including drug testing, discipline or the ability to seek different working conditions in affiliated baseball.
If a minor leaguer doesn’t like his situation, he can’t offer his services to another bidder; his only choice is play in an independent league (usually at lower salaries) or in another country (if he can find work there). This “take it or leave it” type of deal that minor leaguers have is one of the reasons that they have failed to unionize; they are particularly afraid of being blacklisted if they choose to speak up against the current arrangement.
Blacklists in professional baseball go back all the way to the beginning of the “reserve clause” era of major league baseball (that began in 1879) in which agreements were drawn up between clubs so that players who were on reserve lists would be unable to sign with another club and were essentially out of work. It wasn’t until the reserve clause was struck down by arbitration after the 1975 season that free agency (and a limited, collectively-bargained free market system) was permitted in the major leagues.
Sports Illustrated is reporting that Senne, Liberto and Odle are bringing a new type of claim against baseball by using the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that guarantees overtime and minimum wages. The three ex-players argue that minor leaguers are being constantly exploited by the employer, reporting that they worked between 60-70 hours a week during the season and participating in other, unpaid workouts like the fall instructional league and extended spring training.
Major league baseball will have several arguments at its disposal including that the players knew what they were getting into, that the FLSA doesn’t apply in a traditional manner to minor league baseball players under a classification that they “perform original or unique work.” and that their off-the-clock workouts are more for their own “professional development” than for their employment.
Will this case, Senne v. MLB, be a landmark, precedent setting case that brings about better working conditions for minor league baseball players? Or will MLB be able to successfully defend itself and maintain the status quo?
Right now, minor league baseball players tolerate the low pay, the grind of daily working conditions and the long stretches of time away from home to play the game they love and chase their big league dreams. Most understand that, in order to achieve the pinnacle of the sport and the ability to earn enough money to set up their family for the rest of their lives, sacrifices must be made in pursuit of that very slim possibility. If this law suit is successful, it could take away some of the hardships involved in the toil of the minor leagues for young players.