The proletariat gazes on the means of production. Photographer: Jade-Snow Moy/Bloomberg News.
The proletariat gazes on the means of production. Photographer: Jade-Snow Moy/Bloomberg News.

Three minor league baseball players have filed a class action lawsuit against Major League Baseball claiming the current contract system violates local and federal wage laws.

The suit was filed by Aaron Senne, Michael Liberto and Oliver Odle in the federal California Northern District Court and names as defendants MLB, the commissioner's office, Commissioner Bud Selig and the parent clubs of their former teams -- the Kansas City Royals, Miami Marlins and San Francisco Giants.

The backbone of the case is that minor leaguers aren't afforded the benefits of a union, as major leaguers are, and thus work mandatory, unpaid overtime hours, receiving pay amounting to less than minimum wage. While some players get substantial bonuses, the suit says the average player receives a salary of $3,000 to $7,500 for a season of work. It also claims that while minor leaguers are compensated for the five-month season, they often have contractual obligations to appear at spring training, winter training, instructional league and conditioning sessions that occur outside that period.

The inequities are enabled by MLB's antitrust exemptions and the Uniform Player Contract, which essentially binds a player to his team for seven years. Under the UPC, ratified in the most recent collective bargaining agreement that runs from 2012 to 2016, an organization can lend a player's rights to another club and reserves the right to terminate the contract at any time. Players are given little to no comparable mobility within their agreements, which prevent them from signing with any team in any league in any country. Even retirement is conditional, dependent on the approval of the commissioner.

The plaintiffs hope to be certified as a class on behalf of all minor league players and seek various damages and labor regulations. Courthouse News Service notes:

Senne seeks class certification and damages for FLSA minimum wage and overtime violations, recordkeeping requirements, state wage and hour violations, payday requirements, waiting time penalties, itemized wage statement violations, unfair business practices and quantum meruit.

He also seeks an injunction preventing the defendants from implementing their unlawful practices and requiring them to pay all wages pursuant to state and federal law.

It's rather odd that the farm system for the league that pioneered fair labor practice, player unions and free agency should be so lacking in representation. Without a union of their own, minor leaguers have been dependent on the MLB Players Association for negotiating their rights and bonuses in the past few CBAs. As evidenced by the current agreement, major leaguers haven't been shy about hindering the rights of their farmhand brethren, limiting bonuses paid in the amateur draft in 2012 and delaying minor-league free agency by a year in 2007. Why, after all, would a union protect the interests of workers it doesn't count as members? As former MLBPA attorney Gene Orza told Slate in 2012, "We don't represent them, and have no obligation."

There are many obstacles to a minor-league union, but clearly, even (or especially) in the context of professional sports, unbridled, unchecked capitalism doesn't work in favor of a laboring class. Minor leaguers have a right to representation in a system meant to further their careers but that often just ends up exploiting them.

(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)

To contact the writer of this article: Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.