Players seek labor status quo Owners eye change in renewed talks

January 13, 1993|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,Staff Writer

The latest round of baseball's muddled labor negotiations is scheduled to begin today in New York with the two sides, as usual, seeking very different outcomes.

For the Major League Baseball Players Association, the goal is to maintain the status quo. Keep intact the salary system that has sent the average player's pay soaring over $1 million. Leave a generous benefits package undisturbed. Give back nothing.

The owners will come from the opposite direction. They will paint a picture of baseball on the edge, of franchises awash in red ink and of a sport doomed unless the players agree to major changes in their salary structure.

There might be only one palpable difference between these talks and the others that have produced strikes, lockouts and fan disgruntlement during baseball's long history of labor strife.

His name: Richard Ravitch.

Ravitch, president of the Player Relations Committee, is the chief negotiator for the owners and an independent wealthy investor who took the job only when assured he would have sweeping control of management's side of the talks.

In December, Ravitch's growing influence showed when the owners narrowly voted in favor of reopening their talks with the players. The two sides had negotiated a three-year collective bargaining agreement in 1990, but it gave either side the right to cut the deal by a year and begin new talks.

After studying their businesses for a year, Ravitch gave the owners a financial proposal last month. The details have not been disclosed, but are said to include many ideas rejected previously by the owners and players. They include greater sharing of local television revenue among owners and salary caps.

The owners also are contemplating changes in divisional alignments and in the playoffs. Because such changes must be approved by the players' union, they are expected to be discussed during these talks.

Ravitch apparently won't be putting many of his ideas on the table at today's meeting. He has said he will devote the first sessions to sharing general information with the union and talking generally about baseball finances.

The specifics will come later, as will the strategy the owners will follow if the players do not agree to their proposals. There are many scenarios. One is for the owners to lock out the players, literally locking the doors to the major-league clubhouses and refusing to open them until the players agree to terms.

At their meeting last month, the owners did not rule out such strategy. But they voted to require 21 of the 28 team owners to favor a lockout before that extreme step would be taken.

Ravitch calls himself "a great believer in collective bargaining." And he has said he believes differences between the players and owners should be worked out at the bargaining table.

But the balance of bargaining power can shift quickly in such talks. It could be to the owners' advantage to lock out the players during spring training, in the hope they will run out of resolve and money before too many regular-season games are missed.

On the other hand, if the owners decide against a lockout, the players might wait until late in the season to call a strike. A work stoppage late in the year would be especially expensive for the owners because most of their fees from national television -- about $401 million this year -- come from postseason games.

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