Oppose HR 5580

Over the last couple of months at BP Milwaukee, we’ve tried to help make the case for improving minor leagues wages across Major League Baseball. The BPMilwaukee editorial staff fully supports the class-action lawsuit in California (now Florida), lead by minor league hurler-turned lawyer Garrett Broshuis, that is working to improve working conditions through the legal channel by forcing the MLB to abide by the Fair Labor Standards Act in regards to wage and overtime laws. The MLB, of course, is working diligently to put this issue to rest and to keep the pockets of their owners well-lined.

Two congresspeople, Rep. Cheri Bustos (since rescinded) and Rep. Brett Guthrie, both of whom received donations from MLB’s Political Action Committee during the 2016 election cycle, recently introduced legislation H.R. 5580, dubbed the “Save America’s Pastime Act.” The bill officially exempts the MLB and Minor League Baseball from the requirements of the FLSA and denies their employees the rights afforded to them under the law.

Major League Baseball itself doubled down on the issue yesterday, releasing a statement yesterday referring to minor league baseball not as a career, but as a “short-term seasonal apprenticeship.” The MLB essentially claims that it subsidizes minor league baseball as some sort of charitable exercise so that folks living in smaller towns and rural America will still be able to have the privilege of seeing professional baseball being played.

So, if playing minor league baseball is a “seasonal apprenticeship,”  how come players aren’t allowed to choose their employer and are instead subject to a draft? Why are they forced to sign seven-year minor league contracts that give them no control over their future? These “apprentices” don’t get to choose what city or even part of the country that they work in. Their apprenticeship could be transferred to another company and part of the country at any time without their prior knowledge or permission, should that player be traded. These apprentices aren’t paid during the offseason or spring training, yet are expected to keep in shape and made subject to random drug tests?

The suggestion by some that minor league teams have anything to do with how these players are paid is also laughable. Player salaries and bonuses are paid by the parent organizations and have nothing to do with the the minor league organizations that these players suit up for. Player development is one of the most essential aspects of an MLB organization; the MLB needs the minor leagues to train and develop future big leaguers. There is more of an emphasis on “young, controllable talent” today now more than ever.

The game is more flush with money now than it has ever been before, as well. The MLB’s revenue last season increased by $500 million, to a total approaching $9.5 billion. Even the Tampa Bay Rays, the league’s least valuable team according to Forbes, brought in a revenue of $193 million in 2015. The idea that increasing minor league pay would lead to financial hardship for MLB organizations or the folding of minor league organizations is simply ludicrous. The MLB statement approximates that there are about 7,500 players in minor league baseball, or roughly 250 per MLB franchise. If an organization were to pay those players an average salary of, say, $25,000 (which would be two to three times more than most minor league players make currently), it would cost about $6.25 million. For reference, that’s slightly less than what the Diamondbacks are paying Aaron Hill NOT to play for them this year. That’s a little over half of the $10.1 million of dead salary that the Braves absorbed in the form of Tommy John patient Bronson Arroyo last year so that they could also acquire Touki Toussaint from Arizona. Jose Reyes and Carl Crawford were both recently released by their employers despite being owed $20+ million in guaranteed money.

Oh, and by the way, the MLB just agreed to a $3.5 billion deal with Disney for a stake in their Video Arm technology. According to Jon Heyman, the payout will be about $120 million to each franchise, or enough for each team to pay out the above-suggested minor league salary for 19 years.

This issue is something that’s unique to the MLB, as well. While football doesn’t have a similar type of minor league system, both the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association utilize lower level leagues for player development. In the American Hockey League, players earning the minimum salary of $42,375 are still pulling in a median US income while the average salary in that league is closer to $90,000. Players in the NBA’s Developmental League earn between $13,000-25,000 and also have housing provided. The players’ unions in those leagues have gone to bat for their minor league brethren to ensure that they aren’t struggling to survive.

Meanwhile, MiLB players are on a scale that pays them between $1,150-$2,150 per month, and only during the regular season. That does not include spring training or any instructional league play. Even draft or international signing bonuses do not typically provide financial security, as $130 million of the MLB’s $311 million bonus pool is allotted to merely 50 draftees; even the bonus slot system only covers 10 rounds, meaning that the vast majority of draftees receive paltry bonuses. Players are required to find their own housing, and as Brewers’ farmhand Chris McFarland recently shed light on, this can lead to situations like his where five players are sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Biloxi. While players are afforded a $25 per diem for meals when on the road, they are required to otherwise provide their own sustenance.  Teams are increasingly willing to spend millions on bonus payments to drafted players or international signees, yet they aren’t willing to invest in making sure these players are able to provide adequate shelter and nutrition for themselves?

The most common argument I’ve seen is that “no one is forcing these players to play minor league ball.” But how does that justify the extent to which minor league players are being taken advantage of? Try applying that to a different market. Because a person could go work at Culver’s or Burger King, should McDonald’s be exempted from the federal wage and hour guidelines and be allowed to pay their employees less than minimum wage? I don’t buy that for a second.

In the past few days since H.R. 5580 was introduced, there has been a significant and negative response from those around the game and beyond. After receiving feedback from her constituents, Rep. Bustos has since withdrawn her support for “Save America’s Pastime,” though perhaps she should have educated herself better before introducing the bipartisan legislation in the first place. The MLB Player’s Association, one of the strongest unions in America, has also voiced their support on an issue they’ve been mostly silent on over the years.

Hopefully this will foreshadow more sweeping changes across the league, perhaps as a part of the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. You and I as fans can do our part, as well. Get in touch with your representatives and tell them to oppose H.R. 5580. Don’t allow the government to legislate corporate greed under the guise of “Saving America’s Pastime,” which serves only to benefit billionaire MLB owners and millionaire minor league owners. Saving our national pastime shouldn’t mean lining owners’ pockets while the minor league players they benefit from are left wondering if they’ll be able to make their rent or where their next meal will come from. No one is calling for these players to get rich, but they deserve the opportunity to at least make a living wage while being employed by a $9 billion dollar industry that owns a monopoly over professional baseball in the United States.

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