Bill Knight – July 17
11:48 am
Wed July 16, 2014

Wage Theft in Baseball

Two days after Major League Baseball’s annual All-Star Game, the contest at Minneapolis’ Target Field is over but the contest between owners and their employees who aren’t players is in extra innings.

Most people know that ballplayers are paid well – as movie stars, recording artists and other entertainers are. Fewer know that resulted not from benevolent owners, but players who organized.

Credit Rich Egger

For decades, baseball players had few rights beyond whatever their owners decided to grant them – low pay that required off-season jobs, weak pensions, no real compensation for the wear-and-tear on their bodies, and no freedom to determine where they lived or for what team they played. Players were “owned” by teams through the “reserve clause” through their careers; they couldn't play for another team unless it was OK’d by his owner, who either first drafted and signed him, or traded with another owner.

That bondage was changed starting in 1968, when former steel-union attorney Marvin Miller led the Major League Baseball Players Association to the first collectively bargained contract in sports history.

The next year, the St. Louis Cardinals’ star outfielder Curt Flood unsuccessfully challenged the reserve clause in federal court when the Redbirds tried to trade him to the Phillies, but his case established that the reserve clause was a legitimate subject for collective bargaining.

In 1972, baseball players engaged in the first major work stoppage in professional sports history, and the players association helped overturn the reserve clause in 1975. Players became free – free agents.

Audio Pending...

Of course, while organized labor made gains for its athlete workers, owners made baseball and their franchises more profitable, as labor reporter John Buell has noted.

He wrote, “They manipulate their franchises in the same way manufacturing CEOs treat their factories. They relocate wherever they can get the most lucrative subsidies.”

But sometimes, baseball owners’ greed also mimics their corporate brethren.

And players’ fellow workers – off-the-field employees of Major League Baseball teams – are saying, “Play ball!”

The federal Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division recently fined the San Francisco Giants $765,000 in two cases for violating wage and hour and overtime pay laws. The division also fined the Miami Marlins and is investigating pay schemes at the Oakland A’s and the Baltimore Orioles.

Further, the Labor Department has warned the rest of baseball – major and minor leagues – about pay practices. Four years ago, when the Memphis Redbirds, a St. Louis farm team, was under prior management, the government caught them breaking the law, too.

The baseball investigations are more incidents of a common phenomenon: wage theft. Employers steal hundreds of millions of dollars from workers annually by misclassifying them as “independent contractors” ineligible for overtime pay, or paying them below the minimum wage, or denying overtime pay.

A Wage and Hour settlement, announced in May, found the Giants, in one of the most pro-union pro-worker cities in the country, broke the law for a second time, by paying 78 workers, most of them interns, stipends, and not the minimum wage and overtime. DOL said the interns worked in baseball operations, group sales and elsewhere, and were due back pay totaling $220,000 for the group.

In the first settlement, announced last year, the Giants paid $544,000 in back wages and damages to 74 employees. DOL said some were clubhouse workers who earned $55 daily but worked so many hours that their wages fell below the federal hourly minimum of $7.25 and California’s then-minimum, $8. They also got no overtime. DOL ruled then that the Giants improperly classified some workers as exempt from overtime pay.

Wage and Hour spokesman Jason Surbey said the Marlins will pay $288,000 in back pay and damages to 39 clubhouse and office workers. Clubhouse workers clean and prepare the locker room for games but were paid $50 a day. But they worked up to 11 hours on game days, breaking the minimum wage and overtime law.

Wage and Hour Administrator David Weil said, “Whether in America’s factories, fields or ball parks, a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay. Unfortunately, in our recent investigations of Major League Baseball teams, we found employees not being paid the minimum wage and overtime to which they are legally entitled. That’s unacceptable and I am pleased we have been able to secure back wages for those workers.”  

Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com; his twice-weekly columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.