SBJ/April 1-7, 2013/Labor and Agents

Union organizer Prouty finds home at MLBPA

Michael Weiner and David Prouty met in 1983 on the campus of Harvard Law School and got to know each other while sitting in a class on labor law, the one elective that first-year students were allowed to take.

But it wasn’t just through that labor law class, taught by former U.S. Solicitor General and Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, that the two spent time together. At Harvard, the roughly 500 first-year students are divided into four sections of about 125 students each. Weiner and Prouty ended up in the same section, so they proceeded to take all their required courses together — and a friendship grew.

David Prouty became only the fourth general counsel in the MLBPA’s history earlier this year.
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
“There were not that many people who were pro-labor and kind of liberal in their views, so at Harvard Law School, we kind of gravitated towards each other,” Prouty said.

Weiner remembers that he and Prouty, in addition to sharing an interest in labor law, had another thing in common: a love of baseball. “I remember Dave, starting our first year, would arrange to get a bunch of tickets for Opening Day at Fenway Park, and we all went,” Weiner said. “That was back when you could get bleacher seats at Fenway Park for $3.”

While the two friends took different paths after law school — Weiner representing the interests of professional athletes who are paid millions, Prouty working for a union that represents garment workers — it was baseball that ultimately brought them back together decades later.

Earlier this year, Weiner, executive director of the MLB Players Association, announced that Prouty had been named general counsel of the MLBPA, making Prouty just the fourth person in the union’s 47-year history to hold that title (see box).

The promotion came five years after Prouty joined the MLBPA. Before coming to the players union, he’d been general counsel of Unite Here, a union that represents hundreds of thousands of low-wage employees, including hotel, restaurant and garment industry workers across the country.

David Prouty
Title: General counsel
Organization: MLB Players Association
Age: 54
Education: A.B., Bowdoin College (1980); J.D., Harvard Law School (1986)
Two favorite sayings:
1. “Keep the faith.”
2. “If you find the owners telling you what a great guy I am, fire me.” — Marvin Miller
Why unions are important in the sports industry: “Athletes, like all people who work for an employer, need unions to protect their rights and to help secure for them their fair share of the revenues of their sports. After all, the athletes generate that revenue. Without them, you have empty stadiums, no television viewers, and the loss of billions of dollars in related business transactions that the sports industry generates.”

While Weiner joined the MLBPA a few years after graduating law school, Prouty’s legal career began by representing garment workers in the South. His first job was with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union in the Southern region of the U.S. (That union, through a series of mergers, later became Unite Here.)

“Did you ever see the movie, ‘Norma Rae’?” said Harris Raynor, Southern regional director of Unite Here, who worked with Prouty for more than 20 years. “We were that union. When you have a union-organizing campaign, people get fired; they lose their health insurance; people get beaten. And Dave got in the trenches of all of that and fought for the integrity of workers.”

Prouty was involved in union-organizing campaigns and won back wages for workers that were fired. He litigated a number of cases before the National Labor Relations Board, including the landmark Fieldcrest Cannon case brought by Amalgamated that established the union’s right to address employees it was trying to organize after the company gave a speech against unionization.

Though his career, Prouty has won raves from both colleagues and adversaries for his professional approach to representation as well as his kindness and honesty.

“He is one of the most, if not the most, respected union lawyers, if not in the country, certainly in the South,” Raynor said. “He is one of the most ethical and honest individuals I have ever met and certainly the most caring. He is also a brilliant lawyer.”

Weiner speaks of Prouty in similar terms.

“Dave is as genuine a human as you are going to meet,” Weiner said. “He is very compassionate and very kind but he also does what he has to do and understands the way labor relations work. That is a strange combination: someone who knows when to be tough and can be tough but is also that compassionate and kind.”

Weiner had been the MLBPA’s most recent general counsel, having held the title since 2004. He retained the title after becoming the MLBPA’s executive director in December 2009, succeeding Don Fehr, who previously had held both roles as well.

Weiner announced last summer that he is being treated for a brain tumor, but he said Prouty’s promotion was not related to his condition.

“Don [Fehr] held the joint positions of executive director and general counsel for a long time,” Weiner said. “I was willing to hold them for a period of time but I felt that those really should be separate positions. This was a structural change I was going to make regardless of my condition. Since Don, in 2004, separated the two positions, I was willing to carry the two positions through bargaining, but it was always my intention, after collective bargaining, to name a separate general counsel.”

Prouty’s focus since joining the MLBPA staff in 2008 has been on labor and collective-bargaining issues. Through those dealings, he has worked with both Rob Manfred, MLB executive vice president for economic and league affairs, and Dan Halem, MLB senior vice president and general counsel, labor.

In his new role as general counsel, Prouty said, “I will take on broader responsibilities in general; that is what the job of the general counsel is. So I will have my hand in more things: more in the business side, more in the agent-regulation side.”

Speaking from a corner office at MLBPA headquarters in midtown Manhattan, Prouty added, “Mike will continue to be the principal spokesman for the union. If there are times, and there were times in the past, where he wanted me to speak, I will do so. I testified before Congress in my old role, I spoke with reporters. I don’t know if I will be more public or less public [in the new role].”

It was Fehr who brought Prouty on board at the union in 2008. Now executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, Fehr said recently he hired Prouty to take over some of the workload that Weiner was then carrying as general counsel. Fehr said he was looking for a very senior person with a lot of union experience. Weiner recommended Prouty.

Fehr said that carried significant weight with him.

“When somebody makes a recommendation whose opinion you value, as I obviously did Mike’s, and he can say that not only does this person check out on paper and his references are good and he interviews well, but I’ve known him for a long time and can vouch for him personally, that makes a big difference,” Fehr said.

Steve Fehr, who serves as outside counsel to both the NHLPA and the MLBPA, described Prouty as “low-key, dedicated, persistent and effective.”

Bob Batterman, a management-side labor lawyer and partner at the Proskauer law firm, has known Prouty for years, though perhaps surprisingly not through sports. Instead, Batterman met Prouty years ago because he represented various non-sports-related companies that employed Unite Here union members.

Batterman has negotiated against Prouty on numerous occasions.

“He is a smart, practical, hardworking lawyer,” Batterman said. “He is tough representing his client, the union’s interest, which is good. But he was practical, and if he thought his client was making a mistake, he wasn’t reluctant to tell his client. And, if he thought that I was making a mistake, he was not reluctant to tell me.”

On a personal level, Batterman said he never had a cross word with Prouty even though they were always on opposite sides. “It was a comfortable relationship,” Batterman said. “It was not one where your teeth were set on edge because the person is difficult to deal with.”

Looking back, Prouty said when he was offered that first job at the MLBPA, he was torn. His father was a union organizer, and two of his three siblings work for unions.

“Believe me, it was a really, really hard decision, and I sweated it for a long time,” Prouty said. “I spent my entire career working for low-wage workers.”

But the job offer came around the same time Prouty was turning 50, and he thought if he were ever going to do something different with his life, that was the chance. And although MLB players are highly compensated, Prouty was attracted by the fact that they have only a very short time period of time to earn the money they aim to live on for the rest of their lives.

“The other thing is that the MLBPA is an incredible union,” Prouty said. “I had always admired [late MLBPA leader] Marvin Miller and Don Fehr and [former MLBPA COO and attorney] Gene Orza, and the opportunity to learn from those people was something I could not pass up.”

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