* 16 days until the Feb 23, 2024, spring training season opener with KC
* 50 days until the Mar 28, 2024, regular season opener against the Cubs
Today there are no birthdays, or any Rangers-specific historical event or signings associated with Feb 7. And there are no particularly noteworthy events in general baseball history associated with Feb 7, save one.
Today is the 10th anniversary of the filing of a lawsuit by former MiL players against the MLB over MiL player pay and other working conditions. The lawsuit had a cascade effect in addition to changes in MiL pay, working conditions and rules -- it was an impetus to reorganization of the MiLs and resultant lawsuits from former MiL club owners; and it was the impetus for MLBPA organization and representation of MiL players, MLB's agreement to that representation, and the first MiL CBA.
If this seems like recent news, it is -- despite the cascade being a decade old, all of these matters have been resolved only in 2022-23. The presentation here is a complex of 3 related thumbnails, beginning with a couple of overviews, followed by a quick timeline.
February 7, 2014
The Filing of the MiL Class-Action Senne Lawsuit
On Feb 7, 2014, Aaron Senne and a number of other former MiL players filed a lawsuit against several MLB clubs, the Commissioner and the MLB, over back-pay and other matters pertaining to working conditions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the various applicable state and local wage-and-hour laws, in federal district court in San Francisco. The Senne case was but one of several cases filed around the same time attacking MLB's MiL salaries on the basis of minimum-wage laws and antitrust considerations, following other cases where stadium workers, grounds keepers and similar employees had won FLSA lawsuits against teams based on FLSA standards. The US Department of Labor was, at the same time, changing internship rules that would end MLB's traditional lowly paid intern FO and team management labor. The Senne case, however, was the case that would develop into the successful catalyst for the reformation of the MiLs.
The MiL System Prior to 2014
Prior to 2014, the independently owned MiLs negotiated any changes with the MLB through the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (NAPBL), which had governed the minors since 1901, when it was created to deal with the National Agreement of the formative NL. While MLB had the dominant upper hand in those negotiations, and while the Curt Flood Act of 1999 had recognized MLB's antitrust exemption when it came to dealing with MiLs, the MiL owners had invested in their clubs and had valuable property and business rights that the NAPBL protected. These rights included the number and location of MiL clubs, the clubs' organization into traditional leagues, and any any need to upgrade and modernize facilities to help with the development of MiL players. Many MiL facilities were relatively dilapidated and in extremely poor shape.
The MLB probably already wanted to upgrade and streamline the MiL system, but the owners were in no rush to create controversy and take on litigation over antitrust-implicated seizure or destruction of business property rights.
As for the MiL players, salaries were below the federal poverty level. MiL salaries had risen just 75% since 1976, while inflation over the same period had been 400% and the average ML salary had grown by 2000%. MiL players were paid during the regular season only. They were not paid for spring training, instructional league in the fall, or any off-season activities, and MLB rules barred any ML club from paying for those activities. At the start of 2014, MiL players made the league minimum of $1100 a month, rising to $2150 a month for players on the doorstep of the MLs. By contrast the ML mandatory minimum salary was $84K a month. MiL players were not paid minimum wage, nor were they paid for living expenses or travel and moving between variously ranked MiLs. Most significantly, MiL players had never been represented by a union. There were support and advocacy groups, like Advocates For Minor Leaguers, but they had no bargaining rights or much influence with the MLB.
The MLB was perfectly content to continue with this situation. And neither the MLB nor the MLBPA at the time, wanted the MiL players included in the ML players' union. The MLB did not want to give the MLBPA more power or new issues to fight about. And the MLBPA, for its part, recognized that there were significant conflicts of interest between MiL players, most of whom never got to the ML level, and the monetary aspirations of ML players.
The State of MLB in 2014 and the Development of MLB's Approach
In 2014, Commissioner Bud Selig was in the last year of his tenure. His retirment had already been announced, and the election of a new Commissioner was already scheduled for the 2014 owners meetings in July. New Commissioner Rob Manfred would have the developing MiL mess dumped in his lap when he took office on Jan 25, 2015.
By the time that Manfred became Commissioner, the seriousness of the Senne case was becoming apparent. MLB would try to win the lawsuit through its usual approaches, primarily -- (1) stall with venue motions to move the case to more favorable location and judge, along with a host of motions to dismiss or for summary judgment, making the case so expensive that the plaintiffs will give up; (2) try to defeat certification of the plaintiff class or collective, minimizing the impact of the outcome and making the case easier to settle; (3) assert the MiL antitrust exemption that appeared to be recognized by Congress in the Curt Flood Act for MiL matters, even if the Act specifically exempts labor matters from the antitrust exemption; (4) get congressional support to specifically exempt MiL players from the federal minimum wage laws; (5) assert the claim that MiL baseball is seasonal employment exempt from the FLSA; (6) assert the claim that professional sporting events are amusement or recreational establishments and exempt from the FLSA; and (7) assert the claim that FSLA workplace disputes must first go through arbitration prior to court intervention.
At first these approaches seemed to be working. But by 2017-19, it was apparent that MLB was losing the Senne case. So it became more imperative for MLB to streamline working conditions and the nature of the MiL system, if it was going to be stuck with higher salaries and MiL expenses.
On Feb 7, 2014, the Senne case was initially filed as a 50-page complaint with 40 named plaintiffs, alleging a host of different salary and other workplace issues across the MiLs. The three-year statute of limitations for FLSA cases limited the scope of the lawsuit to Feb 2011 forward.
In Jul, the MLB filed a 78-page answer and response to the Senne complaint, asserting 30 different fact-based objections and bases for motions to dismiss, including the more substantial ones listed above. These preliminary issues would occupy the court for over a year.
In Sep 2015, the first of the several cases filed around the same time as the Senne case alleging that FLSA violations by MLB violated antitrust law, is dismissed. All of the other antitrust-based FLSA lawsuits would be similarly dismissed.
On Oct 20, 2015, the Senne court preliminarily and conditionally certified the case as a collective action, subject the right of MLB to file specific motions addressing certification and the right of the plaintiffs to file motions seeking class certification. The FLSA provides for collective-action by the right of other similarly situated persons to opt-into a lawsuit. Class-action certification is a procedural rule of general application with a higher standard, but includes all similarly situated persons unless they opt out. Opting-in produces a substantially smaller group of plaintiffs than does opting-out, particularly in a situation where covert retaliatory action against those opting in is possible.
On Jul 22, 2016, after additional evidence was adduced and presented through MLB's subsequent motion to decertify the collective action, and through the plaintiffs' subsequent motion to certify the lawsuit as a class action as well as a collective action, the Senne court ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to show that their cases were similarly situated to the wide range of abuses alleged. Thus, the court decertified the case as either a class or a collective action. This ruling tossed out of the lawsuit roughly 2200 current and former MiL players who had joined the case since Oct, and reduced it to the initial 40 named plaintiffs. In particular, the court ruled that minor-league players' legal claims differed in at least three important respects: (1) the types of work-related activities in which the players engaged; (2) the amount of time that they spent engaged in those activities; and (3) the amount that they were compensated for these activities.
In Aug, the Senne court reconfirmed its prior ruling by denying plaintiffs' motion for reconsideration, but the court stated that the case could be certified, were the plaintiffs to narrow the scope of their allegations, in order to create distinct classes that would enable the court to apply the same federal and state law throughout each class. So, in the latter part of 2016, plaintiffs in the Senne case significantly reduced the scope of the alleged FLSA violations for certification, and filed a new motion to certify the proceeding as a collective and class action. The new pleading revised their claims for certification to include only the California League (which was the only MiL contained within a single state), as well as spring training and instructional leagues in Arizona and Florida. Argument was held on the new motion in Dec.
After the 2016 season, the MLB began negotiations with MiL clubs and the NAPBL, toward a major reorganization of the MiL system. Realizing that they were outmatched, MiL owners announced at the NAPBL Dec 2016 Winter Meetings that the NAPBL was forming a Political Action Committee to protect its member's rights.
On Mar 8, 2017, the Senne court ruled that the plaintiffs had established "that the classes have been narrowed sufficiently". The court certified as a collective, "any person who, while signed to a Minor League Uniform Player Contract, participated in the California League, or in spring training, instructional league, or extended spring training, on or after Feb. 7, 2011, and who had not signed a Major League Uniform Player Contract before then." The California League group was additionally certified as a class action for both federal and state wage-and-hour law violations. The MLB appealed the certification order.
In the winter of 2017-18, MLB lobbied Congress to exempt MiL players from federal minimum-wage requirements.
In Mar 2018, President Donald Trump signed into law the "Save America's Pastime Act", embedded in a massive $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill. The Act simply amended the FLSA to exempt MiL baseball players from those workers entitled to certain minimum wages and overtime pay under the FLSA. The law had only minimal effect on the Senne case, as It doesn't affect any damages prior to its date of passage, and, more importantly, it doesn't preempt enforcement of state wage-and-hour laws for purposes of future damages or lawsuits.
Prior to the 2019 season, Toronto independently issued 50% raises to their players with MiL contracts. Toronto is the only team known to have paid their players more than the minimum.
In Oct 2019, MLB released a statement stating -- "We are in discussions with the owners of the Minor League teams to reorganize elements of the system with the goal of improving the working conditions of minor league players, including upgrading the facilities to Major League standards, increasing player compensation, reducing travel time between affiliates for road games, improving transportation and hotel accommodations, increasing the number of off days, and providing better geographical affiliations between the MLB. Clubs and affiliates." It had been recognized in the media by that time, that the plan required the contraction of 40 MiL teams, reformation of the MiL configurations, and significant alteration of the MiL-MLB relationships. The then current MLB-NAPBL contract would expire at the end of the 2020 season. The President of NAPBL sent a letter to member teams warning of "significant impending changes" and advising teams not to make any financial commitments, new lease agreements or schedules beyond 2020. He also sent a letter to MLB outlining his opposition to MLB's plan of reorganization.
On Feb 14, 2020, MLB announced that it would increase MiL player salaries starting in 2021. MiL players at rookie and short-season levels would have their minimum weekly pay raised from $290 to $400; players at Class A will go from $290 to $500; AA weekly pay will go from $350 to $600; and AAA from $502 to $700.
With the cancellation of the 2020 MiL season due to COVID-19, MiL players were left in limbo. They were not receiving payments from their teams, and because MiL players are bound by their Uniform Player Contract, they were not able to collect various unemployment benefits. By the beginning of summer 2020, most teams, including the Rangers, committed to paying their MiL players through the end of the originally scheduled MiL season.
At the end of the 2020 season, the last agreement between the MLB and the NAPBL expired. Unable to renegotiate a deal with the NAPBL, the MLB simply dissolved it, contracted 40 MiL teams and 3 leagues, and reconfigured the MiLs and the relationships of the MiL teams with the MLB and their corresponding ML teams, in accordance with the MLB's plan of reorganization.
On Oct 3, 2020, the Supreme Court denied certiorari and let the Senne court certification ruling stand, clearing the way for trial on the merits. The MLB had gone to considerable length to convince the Supreme Court to take the case, employing Paul Clement, a former US Solicitor General under George W. Bush, to present their petition.
On Dec 20, 2021, 4 MiL teams that lost their ML affiliations before the 2021 season, filed an antitrust lawsuit in NYC federal court against MLB.
On Mar 15, the Senne court, after lengthy hearings, rejected most of MLB's motions for summary judgment and granted certain motions of the plaintiffs. In a 181-page ruling, the court held that MiL players were year-round employees who work during training time, that MLB had violated Arizona state minimum-wage law, that MLB had violated California state minimum wage law and was liable for approximately $1,882,650 in penalties to the State of California, and that MLB was liable under federal and state law to the plaintiffs for treble damages. The court had previously held that MiL players were employees, not exempt trainees, and in the new ruling, the court also held that MiL players should be paid for travel time to road games in the California League and for practice in Arizona and Florida spring training.
On Jul 15, 2022, the MLB formally agreed to settle the Senne case, by paying the plaintiffs $185MM, and by changing the MiL Uniform Player Contract moving forward, removing a clause that forbad teams from paying MiL players outside of the regular season. MLB agreed to issue a memo to all teams, advising them that they should pay minor league players during spring training, and at extended spring training and instructional leagues in Florida and Arizona. The MLB stated -- "We are only in the second year of a major overhaul of the 100-year-old player development system and have made great strides to improve the quality of life for minor-league players. We are proud that minor-league players already receive significant benefits, including free housing, quality health care, multiple meals per day, college tuition assistance for those who wish to continue their education and over $450 million in annual signing bonuses for first-year players. We are pleased we were able to come to a mutually agreeable resolution but are unable to comment on the details until the agreement is formally approved by the Court." A class action lawsuit requires court approval of the settlement terms, and a few of the class members filed objections to the terms of the settlement, requiring a further court hearing and more delay before the settlement funds could be disbursed.
On Aug 29, 2022, the MLBPA announced that it was working with MLB toward representation of MiL players. The MLBPA and MLB would engage in numerous bargaining sessions, before finally agreeing to a 5-year MiL CBA on Mar 29, 2023. The MiL players got more than double the previous amount of pay, as well as improved housing and transportation, and enhanced medical and health benefits. MLB got the ability to manage roster sizes, and protection from future wage suits, in the sense that any cases involving MiL players would be handled through arbitration and not through the courts. The owners approved the negotiated CBA unanimously, and 99% of the thousands of players voting also approved it.
On Mar 29, 2023, the Senne court formally approved the settlement in that case. All certified plaintiff players (about 24,000) were potentially eligible to share the proceeds, with estimated payments to players in the range of $5000 to $5500.
On Nov 2, 2023, the MLB settled the outstanding lawsuits by former MiL affiliates. The MLB had prevailed on the basis of its antitrust exemption in both federal district and appellate court. The DOJ had intervened, however, seeking a ruling that any antitrust exemption for the MLB should be read extremely narrowly. With a petition for certiorari by the plaintiffs pending before the Supreme Court, the MLB preferred settlement to taking a risk on a Supreme Court ruling.
This Day in Baseball History: February 7th (Nat'l Pastime)
Major League Baseball's 'Working Poor' (NBC 2014)
Ex-minor leaguers sue MLB over low salaries (SI 2014)
Wendy Thurm, MLB Under Attack On All Sides (FanGraphs 2014)
Nathaniel Grow, Minor League Salaries Challenged (FanGraphs 2015)
Nathaniel Grow, Minor Leaguers Secure Class Action Status (FanGraphs 2015)
Nathaniel Grow, An End-of-the-Year MLB Legal Update (FanGraphs 2015)
Jesse Burkhart, Minor Leaguers Weigh Risks (FanGraphs 2016)
Nathaniel Grow, MLB Scores Big Win (FanGraphs 2015)
Josh Norris, Minor League Players Move Lawsuit Forward (BA 2017)
MLB raising minimum salary for minor leaguers in 2021 (ESPN AP 2020)
Brian MacPherson, Judge certifies class action (Providence J 2017) (pay wall)
David Waldstein, MLB. Pushing for Overhaul (NY Times 2019) (pay wall)
Evan Drellich, Supreme Court allows lawsuit to continue (Athletic 2020) (paywall)
Katherine Acquavella, Supreme Court clears way for lawsuit (CBS 2020)
Chelsea Janes, MLB overhauled the minors (Washington Post 2021) (paywall)
MLB sued by 4 former affiliates over minor league cuts (ESPN AP 2021)
Judge rules Major League Baseball violated law (ESPN AP 2022)
Evan Drellich, MLB to pay minor leaguers $185 million (Athletic 2022) (paywall)
Evan Drellich, MLB's payout on hold (Athletic 2023) (paywall)
Judge OK's $185M settlement (ESPN AP 2023)
Evan Drellich, Senne case goes final (Athletic 2023) (paywall)
MLBPA takes first step in unionizing minor leaguers (CBS 2022)
Evan Drellich, MLBPA, MLB first minor-league CBA (Athletic 2023) (paywall)
Ronald Blum, Minor leaguers agree to CBA (LA Times 2023) (paywall)
MLB settles lawsuits from former affiliates (ESPN AP 2023)