The Major League Baseball Players Association plans to join the AFL-CIO labor federation, putting one of professional sports’ top unions in a formal alliance with other labor groups.
Tony Clark, the former switch-hitting first baseman who is now the union’s director, announced the new affiliation at the National Press Club in downtown Washington on Wednesday. He was joined by Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, which includes 57 other unions representing more than 12 million workers.
Clark said the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and the lockout that preceded the current season prompted the union to think about its own place in the labor movement.
“The truth is we reflected on where our organization was and the things we could potentially do moving forward as part of the broader labor discussion,” Clark said.
The AFL-CIO functions as a powerful lobby for organized labor in Washington, looking out for the interests of its member unions legislatively, and acts as a bridge between unions operating in different industries. The federation was formed in 1955 in a marriage between the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
The MLBPA represents around 1,200 baseball players, many of whom make a lot of money. By joining the AFL-CIO, the union will be affiliated with many working-class unions, including Unite Here, which represents thousands of concessions workers at baseball stadiums around the country.
The AFL-CIO also includes the NFL Players Association and the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member.
The baseball players union joins the federation at a time when it’s trying to organize more workers. The MLBPA announced Tuesday that it had gathered union authorization cards from more than half of minor league players. That would be more than enough cards to trigger a union election under the National Labor Relations Board, but the union has asked Major League Baseball to voluntarily recognize the minor league union.
Clark said the MLBPA hoped to “strengthen our player fraternity” by organizing minor leaguers and improving their working conditions, noting that many struggle to scrape by on extremely low wages.
“The minor league players are the backbone of our industry,” Clark said. “It’s important that they have a voice at the table.”
The potential bargaining unit in the minor leagues would include more than 5,000 players, a large organizing effort for the MLBPA. There may be ways the AFL-CIO could assist in that effort and help amplify the union’s message.
Shuler called the minor league campaign “an inspiration.”
“People often think that being a professional athlete means you’re just set up for life,” she said. “I think there are a lot of misperceptions out there about that. Minor league players are dealing with poverty wages ... and a chronic lack of respect.”
Unions typically pay per-capita taxes to be members of the AFL-CIO, meaning workers indirectly fund their union’s membership. Clark did not get into the specifics of the MLBPA’s arrangement with the AFL-CIO, but said players recognized that “now was the time” to join.
“Whether you’re working on the pitch or on a baseball field or on a construction site, we’re all concerned about safe workplaces.”
George Atallah, a spokesperson for the NFL players union, said it was important for all of the sports unions to be “aligned” with one another as well as the other unions on the periphery of their industries. Being part of the AFL-CIO can help accomplish that, he said.
“When we were locked out in 2011, the first people who came to our aid were the steelworkers, the hotel workers, the communications workers. They were all there for us,” Atallah said. “Solidarity is not just one union within itself but from one union to another.”
The Major League Baseball owners locked out the players ahead of the 2022 season for three months before both sides reached a new 5-year collective bargaining agreement.
Matthew Loeb, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, said Wednesday that the work stoppage showed how much “common interest” players have with other workers, noting that many of his union’s members in broadcasting weren’t able to work until the lockout was resolved.
Shuler said there was “no question” that major league ballplayers have a large platform, and that their star power could help the AFL-CIO and its member unions in their battles with employers. But she said that wasn’t the significance of the MLBPA joining.
“The point here is we’re all workers, and we all have the same struggles,” Shuler said. “Whether you’re working on the pitch or on a baseball field or on a construction site, we’re all concerned about safe workplaces.”