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How The Players Union Got Into This Mess

Tony Clark

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, JAN. 18-19 - This Jan. 15, 2014 photo showing new baseball union head Tony Clark during an interview at the organization’s headquarters, in New York. Clark has big shoes to fill _ and not just as Michael Weiner’s replacement as head of the baseball players’ union. Moving from Arizona to New Jersey, the former big league All-Star also needed to find size 15 snowshoes. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)


Earlier today, in the pitch clock post, I took some shots at the Players Union and its priorities. Earlier this afternoon I tweeted something about how, for all practical purposes, the luxury tax is a salary cap, with the implication that the union had, through either negligence or obliviousness, allowed the owners to impose the sort of payroll restrictions that past union leadership and membership had fought against, tooth and nail. The same can be said for other things depressing the free agency market like qualifying offers.

In the wake of those sentiments, voiced both today and in the past, people have asked me whether I think the union can or will do anything to push back in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. Whether I think they’ll snap back to the footing they had in the 1980s and 1990s when they didn’t allow themselves to get outflanked on both the bedrock pocketbook issues in the game and on the smaller stuff, like the pitch clock. My gut answer: I doubt that the union can do so. At least not quickly.

First off, it’s worth pointing out that the owners beating the players in the last few CBA negotiations is not due to some sudden change in tactics or some stroke of strategic genius. It’s been gradual, with a couple of factors at work.

One factor is that, over the past several CBAs -- going back to 2002 or so -- conditions have been pretty darn good. Money has been flowing into the game and the attendant labor peace has been nice and pleasant. No one wants to spend all of their time on a war footing, and with general financial prosperity prevailing, the vigilance of the union and its membership on bedrock pocketbook issues has understandably waned.

At the same time, the owners have gotten a lot more sophisticated in the way they’ve advanced their agenda. They used to try to do pretty dramatic things in one fell swoop, such as their efforts to implement a salary cap in the mid-90s or their over-the-top threats of contracting teams in the early 2000s. The collusion in the late 1980s was some pretty amateur-level and obvious Bond villain stuff too. All of those things caused the MLBPA to go to Defcon 1, unite and fight. The owners stopped doing that stuff in the 2000s, coincidentally or not, around the time Rob Manfred’s star rose as baseball’s chief negotiator. He’s a smart dude and he and the rest of baseball’s top brass have worked incrementally and subtly to chip away at the players’ share of baseball’s bounty.

As the players have, in the aggregate, and certainly at the top of the scale, grown richer, and as the threats presented by the owners have appeared to be less existential, they’ve lowered their defenses. Part of the lowering of defenses is that they’ve moved away from wartime consiglieres, as it were. Marvin Miller and Don Fehr were blunt instruments. The sorts of blunt instruments you need when your very existence is on the line. When wars end, however, blunt instruments aren’t always welcome. As it is, one wonders how players relate, on a day-to-day basis, to a labor lawyers who are wired like those guys were wired. When you get the sense that, maybe, you don’t really need blunt instruments like them, you look to someone like Tony Clark.

I like Tony Clark. I’ve spoken with him a couple of times and interviewed him once and came away with a good feeling about him. I know some people who know him better and who have worked with him and, obviously, I’ve read a lot about him. He’s an impressive man and you can see what the players see in him. He’s smart and he has a presence and a charisma about him. You’d leave your kids with him or trust him to watch over your business affairs if need be.

I suspect -- based on what I’ve read about and observed from players over the years -- that they liked Tony Clark ascending to the role because he can relate to them. He was a player. He spoke their language. While Don Fehr may have been who the players needed on that wall when the enemy attacked, Clark knows, way better, how the less life-or-death issues facing membership cut. Fehr will fight about financial matters which a lot of players may only understand on a superficial level. Clark makes players feel like one of their own is watching their back when it comes to stuff like days off during the season and how many bus trips veterans have to take during spring training or whatever.

There is not necessarily anything wrong with this. While I and some other looney lefties of the baseball writing world get pretty worked up about how the luxury tax operates or how qualifying offers impact a given free agent, it’s not our union. It’s the players’ union. If their priorities change with changing times, those are the priorities that the union has to address. If players are happy making the money they make, it is not our place to say that they shouldn’t give a crap about the more day-to-day issues about which Tony Clark may have more expertise and about which he can best speak with both union members and ownership.

The problem comes if and when the players do decide that the pendulum has swung too far in the owners’ favor on those big financial issues. How do you suddenly change tactics and fight back when you don’t have a blunt instrument at your disposal?

Ultimately, the players have a nuclear option: to strike. Or, at the very least, to pose a credible threat to strike. They have a seat at the table and are a part of every CBA negotiation, but striking or credibly threatening to strike is their ultimate card to play. It’s not a pleasant option. It turns the players into villains in the eyes of fans and the press, costs them money and keeps them from doing their favorite thing in the world, which is, duh, playing baseball. But that’s the power they have, and both using that power and threatening credibly to use that power has proved to be pretty dang effective for them over the years.

To pose a credible threat to strike, the union has to present a unified front. There has to be solidarity among membership, whether any given player relishes the prospect of fighting with ownership or not, with all of them standing willing to go to war if certain pre-determined lines are crossed. It takes a LOT of work to create that level of solidarity and to forge that unified front. Marvin Miller worked his tail off for years, tirelessly and far-from-glamorously, to get all of the players on the same page -- to get them willing to fight that nuclear war if necessary -- before he could do the stuff he did in the 1970s and early 80s which made the MLBPA what it eventually became.

People who criticize Tony Clark say that he’s not a good union head because he’s not a labor lawyer and can’t fight like labor lawyers can fight. I get what they’re saying, but I don’t think that’s the real issue. Clark and the MLBPA have a lot of labor lawyers on the payroll, and all of them can fight with the best of them. What they cannot do is go into a fight without that nuclear missile in their back pocket. Without the solidarity of union membership and without that unified front that will, if need be, strike or make a credible threat to strike, those labor lawyers are fighting without ammunition. If the players decide to do something about the luxury tax or qualifying offers or anything else that fundamentally alters the financial agreements between players and owners, it’ll be a pretty major change of course for them. It’ll mean disrupting the (owner-friendly) consensus that has formed on these issues over the past 15 years. It’s going to take a big fight. And winning that fight is going to require that the union have its strongest weapon available.

Nothing I’ve seen from Tony Clark suggests to me that he could immediately and effectively muster that sort of consensus and solidarity. Rather than push the players into positions that, however uncomfortable for them, may benefit them in the long run, Clark has listened to the players and worked to help them get what they want now. Which, as I said before, is totally fine, as a union head needs to listen to membership as much as he leads. He works for the players and they have not, recently, shown much in the way of urgency when it comes to stuff like the luxury tax or qualifying offers.

To get to a place where they can fight back effectively on those issues will require changing the overall mindset of union membership, and that’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take educating team union reps who, in turn, persuade their teammates of the importance of the issues. It’s going to take players who may not personally benefit from a change to the current rules -- studs who will get paid regardless and journeyman for whom a qualifying offer would represent a life-changing payday -- to be on the same page and work for a common cause. At the end of that process, everyone will have to agree that, if they can’t get what they want, they’ll threaten to strike. If they half-ass any of that work, ownership will see right through them and won’t take them seriously.

I have a lot of respect for Tony Clark, but nothing I’ve seen since he’s taken over as the Executive Director of the MLBPA suggests to me that he can do that in the next three years or so before the next CBA is to be negotiated. I suspect it will take a blunter instrument. Until he can show that he can be that blunt instrument or until the players decide to hire someone who can, the status quo is going to persist.

Follow @craigcalcaterra