Union head praises Blue Jays for raising minor league pay by half

Union head Tony Clark lauded the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday for giving minor league players a 50 per cent raise, and he hopes other clubs do the same.

Representatives from the players’ association visited the Blue Jays’ spring training camp a day after The Athletic reported the team planned to boost pay for all minor leaguers, some of whom were making as little as $1,100 a month during the five-month season. By comparison, the major league minimum is $555,000 per year, and the top players make over $30 million annually.

Minor league salaries are paid by major league teams only during the season, so players do not get compensated during spring training or the off-season. Those who don’t receive lucrative signing bonuses often struggle to afford meals, rent and basic equipment like cleats and bats.

Toronto is the first club to announce such a raise.

“I’m glad there has been some dialogue and a decision made in the last week to suggest that guys are going to be compensated differently than they may have been in the past,” he said. “We’ll have to see how other teams either do or don’t fall in line behind them.”

A U.S. lawsuit filed by former minor league players alleging MLB violated minimum wage and overtime requirements was disrupted last year when Congress passed the Save America’s Pastime Act, which stripped minor leaguers of the protection of federal minimum wage laws.

MLB has also pushed Arizona lawmakers to exempt minor league players from minimum wage laws there, a move that would affect hundreds of players who are not paid during spring training — despite working as many as 12 hours per day — and make only a few thousand dollars playing in the rookie-level Arizona League.

Clark noted conditions in the minor leagues have not changed much since he played there in the early 1990s. Despite that, the union has accomplished little at the bargaining table on behalf of minor leaguers.

Clark said he considers minor leaguers “a part of the puzzle” for the union but added there are challenges to that relationship. Minor league players are not part of the major league players’ association, nor are they unionized themselves.

The collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the union runs through the 2021 season, and the next round of negotiations could be difficult given player displeasure over a slowdown in free agent spending. Clark declined to lay out the union’s priorities for those negotiations but maintained that minor league pay would be a consideration.

“Although we don’t represent legally the minor league group, we will continue to do the things that we can do to support them moving forward despite that,” Clark said.

Blue Jays vice-president of baseball operations Ben Cherington told The Athletic that Toronto hoped players would use the extra money to find better housing and food. It’s not uncommon for minor leaguers to cram up to eight players into two-bedroom apartments, sleeping on air mattresses to stretch meagre salaries.

“We just feel like it’s consistent with our values of trying to be a player-centred organization and give them every resource possible to be at their best,” Cherington said.

First-year Blue Jays skipper Charlie Montoyo was a minor league manager for 18 seasons. He said it’s “awesome” that Toronto is boosting pay.

“Hopefully, that gives an idea to everybody else in baseball,” he said. “That’s awesome, I think. I’m proud to be a Blue Jay by what we just did.”

Top prospects Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio also praised the move. Both had big-league fathers and received sizable signing bonuses so the salary bump won’t have much effect for them, but they’re thrilled for less-fortunate teammates.

“It’s definitely going to help a lot of people out,” Bichette said.

“It takes their mind off if they have families at home,” Biggio added. “Some of them are married. It’s hard to live off that especially. That puts a lot of pressure on their wives or their family back home so that makes it a little bit easier to focus on baseball itself instead of trying to maybe skip a meal and save a little money.”

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