The Fragile State of Player Solidarity: A Look at Union Leadership in Professional Sports

When employees collectively negotiate their working conditions, their only chance of success rests on solidarity. For union negotiators, the only way to preserve this solidarity is to understand the demands of their members and clearly inform them of the course of the discussions.

In 2020, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, DeMaurice Smith, took a beating.

Seeking the most lucrative television contract ever, the owners wanted to increase the regular schedule from 16 to 17 games and admit more teams to the playoffs. For the players, whose careers were already the shortest in all of professional sport, these were absolutely major concessions. Almost unthinkable, in fact.

The owners, however, succeeded in dividing the players. They sprinkled meager raises to the 60% or so of players who earned minimum wage and increased the percentage of annual revenue shared with players from 47% to 48%.

Even though the players’ executive committee had spoken out against this divisive agreement, DeMaurice Smith forced a vote to be held among all of the approximately 2,000 players. And what was supposed to happen happened: the owners’ demands were accepted by a tiny majority of just 65 members.

For the owners, who had just swapped mirrors for furs, it was a total victory.

And for this reason, DeMaurice Smith has since been ousted from his position as executive director of the Players Association.

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DeMaurice Smith, former CEO of the NFL Players Association

Photo : The Associated Press / Chris Carlson


Now, it is within the MLB Players Association that the union structure is being shaken. This time, the owners have nothing to do with it. These are rival groups of players and their agents who try to devour each other to take control.

This is the first time that the most powerful union in North American professional sport (and perhaps the most powerful in all sectors of activity) has appeared so vulnerable.

And that doesn’t bode well.

In 2022, MLB players concluded a rather advantageous collective agreement compared to the unfavorable agreements negotiated in 2012 and 2017.

Generally speaking, the minimum wage has been increased and the spending limit (before the introduction of a luxury tax) has been raised to encourage owners to invest more in their roster. A few tens of millions have also been set aside to better remunerate young superstars who do not yet benefit from the right to arbitration, and a lottery has been established at the draft to discourage teams from voluntarily sinking in the rankings.

That said, these few gains made by the players did not cost the owners anything because the players offered them new sources of income. The players notably accepted that a greater number of teams be admitted to the playoffs and that advertisements appear on their uniforms and on their helmets.

This agreement was ratified by 26 of the 38 player representatives. But remarkably, it was refused by the eight players who were members of the negotiating committee and who had the best knowledge of the file.


However, last Monday, a large group of players demanded the head of the man who led the latest negotiations, Bruce Meyer.

Known as an experienced and particularly tough negotiator, Meyer is the right-hand man of AJMLB Executive Director Tony Clark.

The portrait of the AJMLB has changed a lot over the past 2 years. In addition to concluding a new labor contract in 2022, the AJMLB managed to unionize minor league players.

The working conditions of minor league players, which were previously shabby, improved considerably upon signing a first employment contract. The owners even paid $185 million in compensation to settle a lawsuit accusing them of previously violating U.S. labor standards.

This unionization process resulted in 34 new player representatives joining the 38-player council to which AJMLB leaders previously had to respond.

If we take into account that around 35% of MLB players earn the minimum salary, this also means that, much like in the NFL, a very large proportion of AJMLB members live in a completely different from that of the highest earners in baseball. In short, it’s a bit as if Céline Dion and Taylor Swift were members of the same union as the singers who tour the bars of the province.

However, the attempted coup within the AJMLB is precisely led by Harry Marino, a 33-year-old lawyer who strongly contributed to the success of the movement to unionize minor league players.

Marino, himself a former minor league pitcher, notably wore the colors of the Quebec Capitales during his athletic career.

The players who approached me want a union that represents the will of the majority, argues Harry Marino.

The latter attacks the famous agent Scott Boras who is rich because he makes the richest players even richer.

With just over two years until the MLB collective bargaining agreement expires, owners need to be slapping their thighs. The union that so often stood up to them – the only one to have resisted the establishment of a salary cap – appears in total disarray.

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Tony Clark (left) and Bruce Meyer (right) negotiated Major League Baseball’s current collective bargaining agreement for players.

Photo : Reuters / Greg Lovett


At the start of the week, during a videoconference in which the group of mutineersTony Clark would have clearly stated that the players have no power over the choice of his assistants.

Clark, who played in the majors for 15 years, put his own head on the chopping block. Those who want Meyer’s head will first have to have his. For the perpetrators of the coup attempt, this creates a strange situation.

Clark is under contract until 2027 as executive director of the AJMLB. To remove him from office, the council of 72 players (!) would probably have to request a vote from all MLB players. The season is about to start and the players have other concerns. The outcome of this vote is also uncertain.

Furthermore, before pushing Clark and Meyer out the door, players should ask themselves whether it is appropriate to decapitate their union as the deadline for their collective agreement approaches.

And most importantly, they should ask themselves whether Harry Marino, the 33-year-old guy who just declared war on baseball’s stars, has the experience and background to negotiate a complex, multibillion-dollar employment contract.

If Marino tries to force himself into control, he clearly does not understand that the solidarity of the players is an essential condition for the success of the union. He is therefore not the man for the job. As for Tony Clark and Bruce Meyer, they face a challenge that will not subside.

The owners are undoubtedly very eager to negotiate.

2024-03-24 15:55:58
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