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Inside the Drive: The Minor Leaguers Who Sprung a Union on MLB

Players were already fuming over their treatment. Enter a motley crew of career minor leaguers with a plan.

The conversations happened in dugouts and on backfields, through group chats and during bus rides, over the phone and on Zoom. They had to be loud enough to reach every corner of the clubhouse but not so loud that they tipped off management. There were some players ready to jump in right away—whatever the risk—and others nervous to draw attention to themselves, fearful that they might imperil their one shot at the majors. They played for different organizations, came from different places and had different needs, resources and experiences outside of baseball. But they all had the same goal.

They wanted to unionize the minor leagues.

It was an idea that might have sounded impossible just a few years prior. The minors’ low pay and tough working conditions had frustrated players for decades—but there had never been a serious push to unionize, and there had certainly never been a context where it seemed like that difficult, high-stakes effort might actually be successful.

“Guys just didn’t think it was possible, point blank,” says Joe Hudson, a member of the organizing leadership and a 31-year-old catcher in the Rays’ system. “They were just like, there’s no way; Major League Baseball and the owners have too much power.”

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There was also a logistical problem: The minor-league workforce is naturally diffuse and transient. There’s considerable turnover, with players departing either because they make it to the big leagues or because they leave the game altogether, replaced each year by a new draft class and crop of international signings. There are teams all over the country. Each clubhouse fluctuates constantly as players are promoted, demoted, released and traded. And even with players who do stay in one farm system for years, well, none of them particularly want to: All minor leaguers want to be major leaguers. This does not make for a workplace terribly conducive to long-term organizing or big-picture reform.

And yet, in late August, the news broke like a thunderclap: roughly 5,500 minor leaguers had received union authorization cards from the Major League Baseball Players Association, asking to represent them as their own bargaining unit separate from the major leaguers.

By mid-September, it was a done deal. A majority of players had signed their cards to signal their interest, MLB had recognized them voluntarily and an arbitrator had verified the process, thereby making the minor league union official.

It had taken 17 days.

How did the organizers—a ragtag mix of largely current and former minor league ballplayers—land such a lightning strike against Major League Baseball’s 30 billionaire owners?

According to the players and organizers involved, the influence and resources of the MLBPA played a role, yes. But that came on top of groundwork laid by nonprofit groups, such as Advocates for Minor Leaguers and More Than Baseball, which had been working directly with minor leaguers to improve their conditions over the last few years. (The staff of Advocates for Minor Leaguers were absorbed by the MLBPA as part of unionization.) Yet players say the most critical part of the organizing process was the most basic: It was the fact that they had spent all summer talking to each other. A small group of players had formed a leadership group before the start of the season, with more coming onboard as the year wore on, and they had invested months in simply talking to their teammates—hearing their struggles, learning what reforms might be most important for them and trying to explain why they felt a better future could be possible with a union.

“Those were tough conversations to have initially,” says Hudson, partly because everybody was so skeptical unionization could happen. “There was an education curve to overcome.”

Hudson, who has played 18 career games in the major leagues and 608 in the minors, currently serves as the veteran catcher for the Durham Bulls. If that’s a role best known in fiction for stubbornness and a certain resistance to shutting up, in real life here, Hudson initially harbored some hesitation: “I just thought that my dream of becoming a major leaguer, staying in the major leagues, getting back to the major leagues could go away,” he says. “But it’s personal to me. I lived it; I breathed it. … At the end of the day, this was something that my heart told me that I needed to do.”

So through much of the last year, Hudson, along with the other minor leaguers central to the organizing effort, dug in. They kept on talking to their teammates until they started to, one by one, win them over.

“It was like a snowball effect,” Hudson says. “The more guys got involved, the more guys wanted to sign cards, the more guys were talking about it. And the easier it became to have those conversations.”

Hudson, a catcher who has had cups of coffee in the majors with three teams, including the Mariners, was one of the leaders of the minor league drive.

Hudson, a catcher who has had cups of coffee in the majors with three teams, including the Mariners, was one of the leaders of the minor league drive.

If the unionization effort looked remarkably, almost unbelievably, quick from the outside, there were years of work behind it. But the movement still happened fast enough to fit in the span of a single minor league career.

Like that of Trevor Hildenberger. The pitcher was taken out of Cal by the Twins in the 22nd round of the 2014 draft and received a signing bonus of $1,000—minus a few hundred taken out for taxes, which meant that after he needed to replace a broken phone during his first week in rookie ball, his bonus was gone. At first, the San Jose native stayed in housing at the Twins’ complex in Fort Myers, Fla. But it took $17 a day from his already meager paychecks: Hildenberger was left making just $185 every two weeks. (At one point, he sat down with teammates to work out what their hourly wage was: They figured it couldn’t be more than $2 an hour.) The situation did not improve as he moved up through the ranks. At one point, Hildenberger slept in a closet. On a pullout couch. An entire summer in a cockroach-infested apartment where the breaker tripped every time he and his teammates turned on the oven. They all knew Walmart’s return policy by heart—90 days to get their money back for items like air mattresses. They weren’t paid for their weeks of work in spring training. Almost all of them had to work second (or third) jobs in the offseason while they continued to train. (Hildenberger’s was in a sporting goods store.) And he had teammates whose situations were more dire: players who couldn’t buy diapers for their babies or who left the game altogether to care for their families.

“I watched guys who I thought should have been in the big leagues, who had the potential, the talent and the work ethic. And they quit baseball because it was an untenable situation,” Hildenberger says. “They couldn’t afford it.”

He began to feel a change with the introduction of the Save America’s Pastime Act in 2016. The legislation aimed to formally exempt minor leaguers from the federal minimum wage; in other words, it sought to codify MLB’s ability to pay the players not just as little as possible, but even less. If the name itself was insulting—the idea that the primary threat to organized baseball was the idea of paying minor leaguers the minimum wage—MLB’s language to describe the players was even more so: They were “seasonal apprentices,” the league argued, not real employees.

Hildenberger saw the news while on a team bus in Pensacola, Fla. Scrolling through Twitter, he froze and read it out loud to his teammates: “It was like, ‘This is what they think of us, bro. They do not respect us. They do not care.’” The minor leaguers had commiserated and made dark jokes and swapped advice about their situation plenty of times before. (After all, it was impossible to ignore.) But this was something different: They were angry, and they were looking at a message that felt insulting to all of them, from serious prospects to undrafted guys. For the first time, Hildenberger saw a group wondering what it would mean to take action. They just didn’t know how to do it.

He made it to the big leagues for the first time the following season, in 2017. Hildenberger soon became a team alternate union representative and spent parts of the next several years in the majors. But when he ended up back in the minors for most of 2021, this time with the Giants, the tide had begun to turn: Now, players were beginning to speak up about their working conditions, and there were new organizations ready to help them.

The biggest was Advocates for Minor Leaguers—helmed by a player turned lawyer named Harry Marino—which had recently focused its efforts on housing. The group had risen up in 2020, when players were grappling with a season lost to the pandemic, and now it had identified living conditions as the single most pressing issue. While there were some opportunities for minor leaguers to stay with host families or in team housing, those were provided unevenly, and many players ended up in situations like those experienced by Hildenberger, or even worse. It was hard to find a place to live on a minor league salary, period. But it was harder still to navigate the process of finding somewhere to stay when players could be uprooted by their employers at any time. This meant it wasn’t uncommon to hear of minor leaguers sleeping in their cars for a stretch or even in conference rooms at the ballpark. So throughout 2021, the nonprofit organized player testimonies on housing and lobbied the league for change. The public and media attention on the subject increased. It worked. That November, MLB announced that, for the first time, it would provide housing to nearly all minor leaguers, beginning in ’22.

There hadn’t been much explicit discussion of unionization yet. But it felt like a turning point: When players spoke up and came together, they realized, they could actually bring about change. And for those who had been skeptical of an outside group like Advocates for Minor Leaguers, here was a reason to believe in them going forward.

“To see that lead to an actual substantive policy change on housing—that led to a level of trust and buy-in from players that collective action actually works in a tangible way, and this is worth our time and effort,” says Marino, who pitched in the Orioles’ system before leaving to go to law school in 2014.

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Over the winter, the player leadership that had been at the forefront of the housing push became the steering committee that would lead the way on a potential union. During spring training, Advocates for Minor Leaguers quietly organized a series of meetings with players who seemed particularly open to the cause. Most were veterans; some had spoken out about pay or working conditions on social media before. They discussed the logistics of unionizing—how it might unfold, what kinds of challenges they could face and how the process had worked for major leaguers in the 1950s and ’60s. But it was clear this was only a starting point: There was no firm time line. The MLBPA was not yet officially involved, and players understood this effort might have to be for the long haul, designed to bring changes for the minor leaguers behind them rather than for themselves.

“I figured it would be a couple of years, and at that point, ideally I’d be either out of baseball or I’d be a big leaguer,” says 28-year-old pitcher Tom Hackimer, who is in the Mets’ system and attended those early meetings, though he was not part of the leadership group. “So I was kind of spaced out. I truly can't emphasize enough how little I thought this was a possibility within six months.”

It was difficult to imagine “an idea like that, because it’s never happened before,” says pitcher Donnie Sellers, in the Blue Jays’ system, another player who was not part of the core leadership but attended a spring training meeting. “I was kind of 50-50 on whether it would work or not, but they were talking about fighting for us to better our conditions, and I was like, that’s a no-brainer. … It’s not getting any better, and if no one else is doing it, why not hop on?”

The players left those spring training meetings and began discreetly reaching out to their teammates and friends. Many of them found receptive audiences: It was clear the situation had changed drastically from a few years earlier, when Hildenberger had been struck by the anger at the Save America’s Pastime Act, an inchoate frustration they hadn’t known how to direct. Now, they had a specific goal. Even among those who were nervous to go public, or unsure about getting too involved themselves, it seemed like there was an opportunity to build solidarity through their shared experiences.

“Players who just wanted to keep their heads down and play baseball and, you know, maybe had other things going on in their lives … It was easy to be like, ‘Look at this, man. We’re in this together and not getting what we deserve, and we actually have some power to do something about it,’” Hildenberger says. “To find common ground with somebody like that was easy.”

Advocates for Minor Leaguers was encouraged by this early success. They didn’t yet have the official backing of the MLBPA, but as spring turned to summer, they decided this was the time: They wanted to do what they could to make unionization happen this year.

“In the minor leagues, turnover year over year is very significant,” Marino says. “And we had the right group of player leadership across the entire minor leagues built out at a certain point in the season, I think, that it became clear that now was really the right time to take this step.”

When he returned to the minors in 2021, Hildenberger could sense growing momentum toward a union.

When he returned to the minors in 2021, Hildenberger could sense growing momentum toward a union.

The players continued reaching out to more teammates while the Advocates for Minor Leaguers staff handled logistics. By May, however, the group had found it wanted to add someone—a person who would lead the player outreach. They needed someone to build out their network of leaders, team by team, and make sure that all perspectives and concerns were addressed.

The perfect candidate to oversee their outreach would be another former player—someone who understood just what it meant to be a minor leaguer. (And “former” was important: The organizing project would require far more free time than any active player could spare.) But he should also be someone with union experience. That meant a player who had not only made it to the big leagues but had stuck there long enough to get some real involvement with the MLBPA. At the same time, it probably shouldn’t be a big, flashy name who might attract lots of attention—they had to be discreet here. And those were just the basics. The ideal candidate would also have to be someone who excelled at building relationships and connecting with people from different backgrounds. It would have to be someone who could handle a spreadsheet with thousands of names without getting overwhelmed.

The ideal candidate was Josh Thole.

The former backstop had played in the big leagues for the Mets and Blue Jays between 2009 and ’16. Best known as the personal catcher of Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, he’d served as a team union rep through the negotiation of two collective bargaining agreements. But he’d also been shuttled back and forth plenty from the minors to the majors. As a catcher, he had years of experience connecting with guys to manage a pitching staff. He was someone players would probably remember but not someone big enough to draw any unwanted outside interest: a veritable baseball That Guy. Since retiring in 2020, Thole had been living in central New York and working on a youth baseball initiative with the MLBPA. But when Advocates for Minor Leaguers reached out to him in May, asking whether he would take up the task of outreach, Thole wasn’t quite sure.

“I spent a lot of time thinking about it,” Thole says now. “Because I grew up a traditionalist—I’m going to say ‘old-school,’ maybe that’s not the right word—but it was the idea that there’s the eye on the prize of just getting to the major leagues. I mean, I spent days thinking about it. And the more I thought, I just found it important that no kid should have to go through what they’re going through, what the previous group of minor leaguers went through.”

He decided he was in. The first step? He had to call players. Hundreds of players.

“It was all relationships,” Thole says. “I just took the same mentality as when I was a catcher. … We have to care about these guys. We have to listen to them. And when you have the ability to just listen and hear them out, that instantly builds trust, and all of a sudden, you build trust with two guys in the clubhouse. They tell three guys, and then those three guys tell two more guys, and next thing you know, you have half a clubhouse on board.”

Those were the same principles that the player leadership was trying to follow as they expanded their reach and talked to more teammates. (The key was “having those conversations loud enough where other players can hear, but not so loud that it was like a team meeting and it was raising ears in terms of team personnel,” Hildenberger says.) The goal was to reach everyone—including across international and language barriers.

If life in the minors felt precarious for players from the U.S., it was far more so for many players from Latin America. Most signed with clubs as teenagers and were soon faced with all the difficulties of adjusting to life in a foreign country as they tried to make it through the grind of the minors. Many sent chunks of their small paychecks to support their families back home, feeling like they had even less leverage than their American counterparts.

“The team has all the power,” says 24-year-old Dominican outfielder Franklin Labour, who spent seven years in the Giants’ system and helped organize Spanish-speaking players. “We don’t get a word. We don’t get anything. We’re literally, it felt like, pieces in a chess game.”

These players were among the most vulnerable in the sport—which meant that many had some initial anxiety about trusting an external group and doing anything that might rock the boat. “It was trying to show them it was legit,” says Labour, who is now a minor league free agent. “It was showing them that it wasn’t like somebody just woke up and just tried to do this. There’s a process.”

The unionizing effort sped up when the MLBPA signaled its interest more seriously. When executive director Tony Clark showed up on a steering committee Zoom early in the summer, the prospect suddenly felt even more tangible.

“Once I saw Tony’s face and he started to get involved, that’s kind of when it became real,” Hudson says. “To hear him speak and to lay out his own words … that was the game-changer for me.”

The campaign picked up even more steam in mid-July, when MLB settled a class-action lawsuit with retired minor leaguers who had sued over not being paid during spring training in 2014. “Everyone sees this notification on their phone,” Hudson says, “and for the first time in my career, I have an entire clubhouse openly talking about minor league working conditions.” As part of the $185 million settlement, MLB issued a memo saying that teams could now pay minor leaguers during spring training. It made an easy avenue for new conversations, Hildenberger says: If this aspect of their working conditions might be changing, what other reforms would they want to see?

By the time Aug. 1 rolled around, the organizers felt confident they were on their way.

“That was the moment when there was a lot of energy,” Thole says. “That’s when I was like, ‘O.K., this is real. This is happening.’”

Thole, who spent four seasons with the Mets and four in Toronto, was the perfect "that guy" to spearhead the organizing charge.

Thole, who spent four seasons with the Mets and four in Toronto, was the perfect "that guy" to spearhead the organizing charge.

The union authorization cards went out Aug. 28.

Labour was on a bus with the rest of the Double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels, making the eight-hour ride back to Virginia after a series against the Akron Rubber Ducks. They stopped at a gas station right after the links to the cards hit their phones, and Labour turned to the players around him: This is what I’ve been talking about all summer.

“‘Now we get the chance to make things matter and to have our voice heard,’” Labour recalls telling them. “It was exciting. It felt like I was just doing my part.”

The players were at first unsure what might happen next—if the league would recognize them voluntarily or push them to an election. When they learned scarcely a week later they would be recognized, “I can’t think of another word besides ‘overwhelming,’” says Hildenberger.

For Josh Hejka, a pitcher in the Mets’ system who helped organize his team, the Double-A Binghamton Rumble Ponies, it was a rare example of collective minor-league joy. Yes, they all cared about winning as a team on the field, but the nature of life in the minors meant that everyone had individual goals and workloads specified by the organization—it was unusual to feel like anything was a real collaborative effort to celebrate. This was different. They were together in the clubhouse when they learned the union would be recognized, and they all “were fired up,” which seemed like the first real group celebration he’d experienced since he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019.

“It felt like everybody had bought in on the same goal, and everybody got to celebrate the win,” Hejka says. “It felt like it overcame the individuality of pro ball to the point where there was a collective excitement, collective celebration, and that’s something I hadn’t really felt—that raw an emotion—since college.”

Questioned about the league’s original reaction to the news that minor leaguers had signed union cards, and about the decision to recognize them voluntarily, an MLB spokesman referred Sports Illustrated to the statement the league made after recognition: “Major League Baseball has a long history of bargaining in good faith with unions, including those representing minor and major league umpires, and major league players. We respect the right of workers to decide for themselves whether to unionize,” reads the statement. “Based on the authorization cards gathered, MLB has voluntarily and promptly recognized the MLBPA as the representatives of minor league players. We are hopeful that a timely and fair collective bargaining agreement will be reached that is good for the game, minor league players and our fans.”

The player leaders hope they can negotiate that first collective bargaining agreement over the next few months. That would mean a chance to materially improve conditions for themselves right now, which is exciting both for them and for the game, they say. ​“The overall quality of baseball has to go up,” says Hackimer. “Because—crazy concept—if they’re giving the players the freedom to just care about being better at baseball, and not have to worry about surviving until the next month, that can only be good for the quality of player that's going to be produced.”

The players involved still have the same dreams of moving up to the majors. But they’re proud to have left a mark on the minors.

“If I can say I played a small role in helping unionize the minor leagues—that’s way cooler than pitching in the big leagues,” Hildenberger says. “This is by far the thing I’m most proud of. I think this will have a lasting impact on players, hopefully for decades and decades to come, thousands of people and their families. It’s just awesome.”

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