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Q&A: Chatting with MLBPA executive director Tony Clark in the wake of a historic minor league labor deal

Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, appeared at a National Press Club event in Washington in September.Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

NEW YORK — A 350 percent bump in membership is no small matter for any labor union.

When that union is the Major League Baseball Players Association, however, it becomes one very big deal in the sports industry.

If all goes smoothly, by next spring training MLB will have forged its second collective bargaining agreement in less than a year, a historic deal that would bring 5,000-plus minor league players under the 1,000-plus big leaguers’ tent.

For more perspective on the magnitude of this, the Globe sat down for a one-on-one with Tony Clark, executive director of the MLBPA, to collect his insights on what influenced MLB’s decision to not fight the organizing effort and what the future looks like for unionized minor leaguers.

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(The conversation was edited lightly for clarity and length.)

Q. Over the past several years, whenever baseball writers would ask MLBPA leaders about the plight of minor leaguers, there was this strange disconnect, like, “We don’t represent them, we’re not talking about them.” Yet the union’s decision to invite the minor leaguers must have been in the works for years. Was this always a goal?

A. As someone who played in the minor leagues, and who has not seen much change since I was in the minor leagues, and the fact that the vast majority of major league players played in the minor leagues, there has been ongoing dialogue in regards to what support can be provided to minor league players by major league players.

Q. Since you were a player?

A. I wouldn’t say that. I would say that once I was done playing, you started to hear it a little bit more. But it’s really over the last few years that it’s picked up significantly. Whether it lent itself to organizing the minor leaguers or not, it was always a conversation around support and what support could be provided.

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Q. And was the discussion to implement the strategy basically, “Let us complete our new CBA first (accomplished last spring) and then we can devote full attention to it”?

A. Our focus during bargaining was on bargaining. To the extent that there were opportunities to get updates and engage Harry Marino and Advocates for Minor Leaguers during that time, if the schedule permitted, then we would engage.

Coming out of bargaining, then, there was an opportunity to take a little more comprehensive look at where things were on the minor league side — again, all with organizing as a possibility, but knowing that that possibility was going to be predicated on major league players making the decision to support it.

Clark has been executive director of the union since December 2013.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Q. In terms of enthusiasm or conversation from the major leaguers, did that really escalate over the summer?

A. There was what I’ll call informal dialogue with a number of major league players. Some major leaguers were more focused on this than others, meaning “are there other ways we can support the minor leaguers, what are we doing on behalf of the minor leaguers?” that started to pick up a bit as the summer went along.

And so there were those informal conversations with broader groups of players starting to happen. And then it manifested itself in a formal call with player reps the week before that ended up with there being a launch of the authorization cards [in late August].”

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Q. Your membership is about to swell, isn’t it?

A. Yes, 5,400 or so, give or take, on top of the 1,200. Then we’ll finally be in a position where when you enter the professional ranks, until the time you’re done playing, there’ll be support that can be provided from day one until that last day and beyond.

Q. Kind of like how MLB wants to be the mother ship of all professional baseball, including controlling the minor leagues, now there’s one PA?

A. That’s a conversation for another day as to what their goals and aspirations are in regards to One Baseball, at least as I see it. That’ll be another conversation worth us having.

Q. Do you feel there’s a link to MLB recognizing the minor leaguers to how the specter of MLB antitrust hearings in front of the US Senate Judiciary Committee sometime in September got put on the back burner?

A. I think there were a number of extenuating circumstances that were a part of the overarching conversation. I can’t speak specifically to MLB’s decision. But there were a lot of moving pieces that were likely a part of the equation.

Q. Have you all started working on the next CBA with the minor leaguers?

A. There’s a lot of information that we don’t have, which we are looking to engage the other side on, to make sure that we have an appreciation for more of the information that we would otherwise need to have a comprehensive bargaining discussion. And then we’ll look to formally get something on the calendar.

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Q. Is there a template you can follow for the first-of-its-kind CBA?

A. There are a couple of things. Obviously, there’s history in any number of of organizing drives, followed by a first CBA. We have outside counsel that has that experience.

Q. Will any of the language impact any part of the CBA you just reached in March?

A. No, there won’t be any changes.

Clark (right) with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred at the 2021 World Series. Ron Blum/Associated Press

Q. Let’s say if the minor leaguers don’t have a deal by spring training, would you guys cross (a picket line)?

A. Can’t. They’re two separate CBA’s.

Q. But if this hasn’t been finalized by spring training, or there is an issue or a problem, it’s going to be awfully hard to hold spring training games without minor leaguers.

A. Not on the major league side.

Q. Even without the minor leaguers to fill out rosters for minor league games?

A. You’re talking about a doomsday scenario that I don’t think the other side is looking for. Let me say it this way: We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. But as far as the major league schedule, it’s not going to be affected.

Q. During the last CBA talks and lockout, and any time baseball labor talks come up, sometimes the public will tune out, you know: “millionaire players, billionaire owners.” With the minor leaguers, though, is there a more relatable component to it, with the living conditions and salaries getting highlighted, where the public says, “Oh yeah, that’s really not good.”

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A. Rather than a “versus,” I’ll simply highlight that with Advocates for the Minor Leagues and Harry Marino getting the support that he had over the course of the last year or two helped minor leaguers find their voice in a way that engaged the public much differently than they had prior. And I agree that there is an understanding and tangible support there that we hadn’t seen before from the baseball public.

Q. Isn’t there a backdrop to all this and its timing, with Starbucks workers, Uber drivers, and more groups in terms of national momentum?

A. We have the right group of players at the right time and in the right climate. I think much of what you just highlighted is part of the climate piece. So generally, the conversations around unions and collective bargaining and the value inherent in it, I think all of that was part and parcel to this being the right group at the right time.

Q. Then this always gets back to Marty Walsh (the US Secretary of Labor and former Boston mayor), doesn’t it? There’s always a Boston angle. But he’s had his fingers in baseball and all these national movements.

A. (smiling) Marty is definitely a union supporter.

Clark's playing career included 90 games with the Red Sox in 2002.Lee, Matthew J. Globe Staff

Q. When it comes to finding the minor leagues’ union leaders, have they already been identified, have they stepped up? Isn’t it a more fluid crop than major leaguers?

A. It’s an ongoing process. In other words, there was a group of minor league player leaders that were heavily involved in the organizing campaign. As we continue to work through governance structures, we do so with an eye on creating a more formal leadership group.

Q. Do the minor league players have to be active minor leaguers, like the current major leaguers?

A. The position that we’re taking right now is even if you are released, or simply a minor league free agent who is looking for a job, in both instances, you can continue to be a part of the engagement. And then as certain formal pieces start to be established, we’ll have to navigate those accordingly. But for now, we’re being more inclusive than exclusive.

Q. In what capacity can the PA help minor leaguers financially?

A. The growth of the player business is tangible. As a result, the major league players have the opportunity and are doing so even as we speak to provide financial support and resources for the minor league players, particularly ahead of any new CBA being in place.

Q. Support with emergency funds, cost-of-living support?

A. We’re not funding salaries, we’re not paying salaries. No, it’s about staffing, it’s about resources that can otherwise be available to position minor league players for whatever support they need … to negotiate a new CBA.

Q. Will minor leaguers be able to strike their own licensing deals similar to how major league players can?

A. Currently, with their Name, Image, and Likeness rights, Major League Baseball is the exclusive rights-holder at the point in time that minor league players sign their first uniform player contract. And we look forward to having a conversation with the league about those rights and how best to position that moving forward.

Q. So the timeline for the new CBA is by spring training?

A. There’s no formal timeline yet. But that’s the goal, I think, for all involved. Lord knows I’m not going to speak on behalf of MLB, but I think there’s an interest for all involved to have something in place, if at all possible, before spring training next year.

Q. Anything else on the topic?

A. Perhaps I’m biased in this regard, but to me, it’s all about the players themselves. As much as some of the other things have been in the headlines, everything that we have seen historically with this union has been the result of a player or a group of players at that time taking a position for what they believed was fair and right.

Absent that, you don’t have any number of the accomplishments that this organization has had. And I think this one is a testament to the players, and the decision that they made to stand up for something that they thought was fair and right, in the hope of improving the working conditions and the climate in which they work. Absent that, it doesn’t happen.


Michael Silverman can be reached at michael.silverman@globe.com.