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Tony Clark: ‘Right players, right time, right climate’ for minor league union

Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB players union, joined AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler during a news conference Wednesday in Washington. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

The Major League Baseball Players Association would like to have a collective bargaining agreement for minor leaguers in place by next year’s spring training, executive director Tony Clark said Wednesday.

Clark, speaking during an interview after an event at the National Press Club in which he announced the players union would join the AFL-CIO, reiterated that the players are asking MLB to voluntarily recognize a new minor league union. But he said the soon-to-be beefed-up players association — which would be responsible for negotiating separate CBAs for major leaguers and minor leaguers — would still hope for a deal to be in place early next year, even if the new union has to gain recognition through the National Labor Relations Board.

“The voluntary recognition provides an opportunity to sit down with the league sooner than perhaps we would if we petition the NLRB and go through the ballot process,” Clark said. “But while we remain hopeful and we do think that there’s value to the former, if we have to go the latter there will be an opportunity, we still think, before spring training to engage post-unionization on a new agreement.”

MLB has not formally responded to the union’s request, but Clark said he is “encouraged by the conversations we’ve had so far.”

Minor league baseball players take the next step toward unionization

The move to unionize roughly 5,400 minor league players — most of whom make between $500 and $700 per week for a five-month season — has come to fruition in the past two weeks, when years of advocacy resulted in the MLBPA distributing authorization cards to players. The union said Tuesday that more than half of the players replied that they would support unionization.

Clark, who attended a Tuesday night ceremony at Audi Field in which the men’s and women’s national soccer teams signed historic collective bargaining agreements, said a combination of factors led minor leaguers to this point. He and Liz Shuler, the president of the AFL-CIO who took part in a panel discussion with Clark on Wednesday, said awareness of workers’ rights is at a high point.

“The labor movement is moving into a new era,” Shuler said. “ … No workplace is off limits.”

“When you look at our industry, the truth is the major league players are organized,” Clark said in the interview. “The major league umpires are organized. The minor league umpires are organized. The minor league players are not.

“And so we have the right players, right time, right climate, and we do our best to listen to our members who have been asking about providing support to minor leaguers over the course of the last number of years, as well as the minor leaguers themselves who have an interest in being organized.”

The task of negotiating a labor agreement for roughly 1,200 major leaguers who are seeking their part of annual MLB revenue of around $10 billion and a separate deal for thousands of minor leaguers could seem disparate. The major league minimum salary is $700,000, and the average major leaguer in 2022 earns $4.41 million, according to the Associated Press.

MLB players union begins unprecedented push to unionize minor leaguers

“There are differences between the major league experience and the minor league experience, but there’s still an opportunity to have a conversation about improvements on the minor league side,” Clark said. “Improving pay does not mean that minor league players are going to be making the major league minimum.

“But a standard across the board, whether you’re in rookie ball or [Class AAA], the working conditions under which you’re playing — important. A living wage — important. And ensuring due process and protocols being in place — important.”

Clark, 50, was a major league first baseman for 15 seasons, playing in 1,559 games from 1995 to 2009. But before he broke in, he played in more than 300 minor league games over five seasons. He said it’s striking that players are asked to do more than ever in preparation during the offseason — when they aren’t paid — while the in-season conditions are largely the same

“Making $800 a month in [Class A] ball or playing on a field where the infield was at an incline and the outfield was at a decline, or being in a locker room where the floor was dirt, those things I do remember like they were yesterday,” Clark said. “And you fast-forward to now, what we were asked to do then is different than what players are being asked to do now — except that $800 that I was making in A ball isn’t much different now than it was then. Being asked to do more both in season and during the offseason, but sitting here 30 years later and the compensation is largely the same?”