It might come as a surprise to many that professional sports players in the United States often belong to a union. They are covered by a collective bargaining contracts, all pay their dues and get legal aid when needed and protections from being organized.
Over the past two years, players in the minor American baseball league, which can be of equal importance to the second Romanian football division have been organizing, conducting one-and-one conversations and planning to unionize. More than half of those players voted to form a union and yesterday the Major Baseball League (MLB) voluntarily recognized them. When the employer recognizes them by default, no formal election through the governmental agency, National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), has to take place.
From the outside even playing in the minor sports leagues are dreams that we can only entertain for short periods of times. We imagine how we would feel having the chance to swing a bat and have the cameras pointed at us. We are raised imaging that we must feel that the moment we wear the sports equipment, we have reached success and that we are more lucky than others.
Unfortunately the luck to play on television does not often come with a great remunerations and protections, since the sports leagues have been instrumental in pushing against workers’ demands. In 2018, MLB lobbied Congress to exempt paying baseball players the minimum wage and from collecting overtime pay. In the Minor League, they earn roughly $14,000/year. The median living wage across the United States is roughly $67,000/year, situating Minor League players in a heavily precarious situation.
Upon reading the numbers we might ask ourselves why do the players decide to stick to those jobs, but we must look at other aspirational professions to understand that it is a widespread phenomenon. Walking through Bushwick, NY, we encounter thousands of actors who score an advertisement once in a while, but dream of joining a big-budget film or a successful theatre company. They hustle, just like the baseball players, hoping for a better future in sight when they will be able to fulfill their dreams.
The baseball players will now join their seniors playing in the Major League who have been covered since 1966 by a union. At the beginning of the year, they were in a lockout, since their previous collective bargaining contract expired and negotiations with MLB were not going as smooth. In late March, they reached a tentative agreement that was ratified in April. The new contract aside from offering additional protections in case of termination or draft picks also raises the minimum yearly salary from $570,500 to $700,000.
If the sportsmen’ salaries are raising eyebrows, pointing us to ask why should they unionize when earning so much money, we should turn to the actors who are part of SAG-AFTRA. Actors such as Sophie Turner, Benedict Cumberbatch or Roberto De Niro. All have played in major films and have received high compensations, yet in order to do that and to have access to certain roles, they had to be members of the union. In Hollywood, not everyone can come and try their chance on any film, since some roles specifically require the actor to be a union member.
When Robert De Niro gave a speech at the SAG AFTRA awards, he specifically thanked the union and acknowledged the importance they have in securing great contracts for actors, as well as protecting them.
While the image of the union worker in the popular imagination is that of an industrial laborer, those examples I have provided earlier are meant to diversify the picture. Not only that, but unions in the performing arts and sports have made sure that workers do not go underpaid and that their talent is remunerated. If a production company can make millions off someone’s talent, isn’t the worker entitled to a couple hundred thousands at least?