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Sunday brought news of an enormous move for baseball and organized labor: The MLBPA sent out union authorization cards to minor league players. This isn’t an election to unionize. (At least not just yet.) But it’s a huge step that could have major ramifications for the minor leagues. As first reported by ESPN, this has been a long time coming, and it comes after years of advocacy and organizing around pay and working conditions.

There’s a long road between this moment and a collective bargaining agreement for minor leaguers. But here’s a rundown of some things to know right now.

What exactly are the cards that minor leaguers received this weekend?

These authorization cards are the first big step toward unionizing. A player who decides to sign a card is saying two things: One, he’s interested in being part of a union, and two, he’d like that union to be the MLBPA. If enough players sign—indicating widespread support for unionization—they can move forward with the process. It’s not quite a formal election where players are voting to unionize. (That might come later.) Think of it more like a way for everyone involved to assess player interest and figure out how to proceed.

So what happens next?

Players will choose whether or not they want to sign their cards. (The MLBPA is reportedly using Monday for Zoom sessions where players can ask questions.) What follows is tied to how many of them decide to sign. If they get signatures from more than 50%, MLB can recognize the union voluntarily, rather than requiring an election. For instance, when the NBA’s developmental league, the G League, distributed union authorization cards two years ago, 80% of players signed, and their union was voluntarily recognized by the NBA. (More on that below.) But the emphasis here is on “voluntarily”: It’s up to MLB to choose that. Even if 100% of players signed their card, MLB wouldn’t have to recognize the union right away, and the process could instead take a different, more complicated path. That would be a formal election.

Just 30% of players need to sign their cards to call for an election as opposed to the 50% needed for voluntary recognition. But MLBPA will be aiming for as high a number as possible; they’d want a comfortable majority. The election process can be lengthy and drawn-out, with plenty of challenges from management, and the union will try to build up as much early support as it can.

And if fewer than 30% of players sign cards? The process stops for now. But the MLBPA’s choice to send cards out now suggests it believes it has plenty of interest.

Are there other minor-league sports that have unionized?

Yes. The sport with the longest track record here is hockey: The Professional Hockey Players’ Association has represented minor leaguers since 1967. In basketball, there was the aforementioned unionization of the G League with the Basketball Players Union in 2020, which was voluntarily recognized by the NBA.

Note that both of these are different organizations than the unions of their major-league brethren: Minor-league hockey and basketball formed their own unions, rather than joining the NHLPA and NBPA, respectively. (Though the NBPA did help the BPU get off the ground.) But baseball has chosen a different path here with the idea of one union representing all professional players.

What about the groups that were already trying to improve conditions in the minors?

The biggest one, Advocates for Minor Leaguers, has effectively been welcomed into the fold at the MLBPA: They announced on Monday that the organization would be dissolving as its staffers take on new jobs with the union. Advocates for Minor Leaguers’ formal existence was brief—it was founded only in 2020—but it oversaw several big wins. The most notable was helping to secure housing for players, and it’s more recently been involved in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s inquiry into MLB’s antitrust exemption, but its biggest win of all might be something more abstract: It demonstrated a proof of concept for organized advocacy around minor leaguers and showed what solidarity here can look like. That’s crucial for getting into the process of unionization.

Was any consideration given to including minor-league players in the MLBPA originally?

A little. MLBPA pioneer Marvin Miller has acknowledged as much—but then, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, it was difficult enough to build solidarity among major leaguers. Adding in the variety of interests, needs and motivations of minor leaguers seemed impossible. “The notion that these very young, inexperienced people were going to defy the owners, when they had stars in their eyes about making it to the major leagues—it’s just not going to happen,” Miller told Slate shortly before he died in 2012. There wasn’t much serious interest around including the minor leaguers. They’ve been shut out ever since—until, potentially, now.

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