Last Out for Cooperstown: An Employer’s Guide to the Latest Workplace Disputes in Baseball

Fall baseball offers some guarantees for fans, as playoff runs, all-time record assaults and jockeys for the draft position generally imbue the final month of the season with an air of certain uncertainty. This year, however, there seems to be more doubt in the baseball world – and it has nothing to do with the surprising Baltimore Orioles. In recent weeks, Major League Baseball (MLB) has been hit with labor relations developments that have come to them faster than a fastball from Jordan Hicks: from the AFL Joining Players Association From the CIO, to the organizing efforts of their minor league counterparts, to an $185 million settlement in a contentious lawsuit with the FLSA, baseball as we know it is about to undergo major changes. What should employers know about these developments?

AFL-CIO and Major League players team up

Last week, news broke that the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), the union representing players in the league, had joined the ranks of the AFL-CIO, adding their numbers to more than 12.5 list of one million workers. While the MLBPA traditionally outsources its legal matters to external law firmsjoining the AFL-CIO puts major league baseball players in concert with workers from all walks of life, from the Actors Equity Association to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

The move to the AFL-CIO also protects the MLBPA from other unions that might try to organize minor league baseball (more on that below). Overall, the partnership with the AFL-CIO gives the MLBPA increased influence at the union table and is the kind of move that would make former union executive director Marvin Miller proud.

The decision to join the nation’s largest labor organization follows a baseball lockout that has largely preserved the status quo until the next collective bargaining agreement. While players received concessions toward a pay rise, increased incentive to stop service time manipulation, rules against tanking, and pre-arbitration bonuses, neither side reached an agreement on a salary cap. Additionally, the owners were able to expand the revenue-generating playoffs and usher in an era of Universal DH and – perhaps a bit too late for Chris Davis – a ban on change.

While both sides will likely be open to small competition-focused rule changes over the next few years (think tall clock, taller bases), expect to see some serious conversations regarding game floors. spending, linking player salaries to income and a more structured framework placed around the international draft. And that could lead to another labor battle – stay tuned after the 2026 season for what is sure to be another contentious round of negotiations.

Minor league organizing efforts intensify

The continued progress of Minor League Baseball (MiLB) players toward unionization is doubly problematic for Major League Baseball. More recently, we saw an announcement from the MLBPA claiming that the union had signed clearance cards from more than half of minor leaguers favored unionization.

This is likely to have a much bigger impact on baseball than AFL-CIO news and in a much deeper way. With over 50% of minor leaguers supporting a union, minor leaguers have asked MLB to voluntarily recognize their union.

Unionization likely won’t solve all of the issues minor leaguers have raised in the past, from lower wages than their major league counterparts to the uncertainty that comes with being a minor leaguer. However, a minor league union working with the backing of the MLBPA — and, by proxy, the backing of the AFL-CIO — would be a formidable enemy of negotiations. It remains to be seen how baseball owners will react at the bargaining table with the minor leaguers.

Just last week, news broke that MLB would agree to voluntarily recognize the MLBPA as the minor leaguers’ collective bargaining representative. Under the Joy Silk doctrine, an employer who receives an application for recognition from a union must demonstrate a good faith basis to deny the application or face a bargaining order — without an election by secret ballot. Although two Supreme Court cases overturned this doctrine more than 50 years ago, NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo has proclaimed her desire to restore it for employers across the country.

Settlement of wages and hours finalized

Along with MiLB’s organizing efforts, MLB’s $185 million settlement for alleged lost wages and overtime resulting from claims for time spent in extended spring training, spring training and instructional leagues in Florida and Arizona complex leagues. While the individual payout may end up being small (there are thousands of qualified people who have participated in spring training over the years covered by the settlement), the message being sent is pretty clear: the status quo creates more accountability than a fragile replacement with loaded bases.

What does all this mean?

It looks like the “hot work summer” may continue into early fall. Union organizing efforts in the service industry, increased power of college athletes via NIL agreements, and now baseball: a common thread is increased interest in unions. Baseball may be the next frontier of the labor movement, but it probably won’t be the last.

Minor leagues may very well unionize, but this could come at the cost of fewer affiliated minor league teams in the face of increased operating costs. The MLBPA may additionally try to negotiate better deals for its players or end the practice of prized talent staying in the minors for an additional five weeks to “work on defense.” It seems that, as usual, a baseball fan’s only constant is the All-Star Game and Bobby Bonilla keeps cashing checks.

Be sure to subscribe to the Fisher Phillips Insight system for the most up-to-date information. Any questions can be directed to your Fisher Phillips attorney, the authors of this overview, any attorney in our Labor Relations Practice Group, or any attorney on our Sports Industry Team.