FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The 28 major-league owners returned home from a three-day meeting this week with much of their agenda successfully in place, but the long-term impact of their Florida summit remains unclear.
What was the agenda, anyway?
They approved a revenue-sharing plan that is the first step toward a comprehensive labor agreement and changed their bylaws to consolidate the bargaining power of chief labor negotiator Richard Ravitch. They finalized realignment, but chose not to elect a new commissioner because of the possible effect it could have on the labor situation.
To hear them tell it, they have moved closer to putting their house in order, but it's just as likely they took a step closer to the biggest labor showdown in the game's history.
Ravitch got his 28-0 vote on revenue sharing and got a resolution that forces the owners to reach a 75 percent consensus before they can approve a labor agreement. The next step is to present a salary cap to the Major League Baseball Players Association. What happens after that is anybody's guess.
The battle lines are being drawn. Union director Donald Fehr quickly cast doubt on the likelihood that the players would accept any plan that limits the total outlay for salaries . . . and wondered aloud whether there would be any flexibility in the revenue-sharing plan that the owners agreed to on Tuesday.
"One of the dangers was, they would negotiate exhaustively among themselves until there isn't much room for negotiation with us," Fehr said. "That looks like the case, because it seems like it would take a lot to change their proposal."
Ravitch indicated Wednesday he would have latitude to alter the revenue-sharing plan during collective bargaining negotiations. That's one of the reasons why the owners chose to require a 75 percent vote to approve a final agreement with the players, because it would give them -- in Ravitch's words -- "one more bite at the apple" of revenue sharing.
The revenue-sharing plan will not go into effect unless the players agree to a salary cap, which means the labor negotiations will have to break through a philosophical barrier to avoid some work stoppage.
"The notion of a salary cap is troublesome," Fehr said, "because it involves the players accepting less than they are worth. The salary cap is intended to make revenue sharing palatable to the larger clubs. But we ask, why not just share revenues? If you only are willing to have revenue sharing if the players pay you back, that's something that needs to be talked about."
No doubt, it will be talked about for months. The owners have agreed not to lock the players out this season and to leave the terms of the recently expired Basic Agreement in place for the time being. The players have made no guarantees, so it is possible that they could try to force an agreement by setting a strike deadline for late in the coming season.
Fehr insists there are areas the players would like to address during the collective bargaining talks, but it is evident they would be satisfied to retain the status quo. That was largely the case in 1990, when the owners locked the players out of spring training, but the players did exact some minor concessions in the last Basic Agreement.
So, here we go again. Ravitch has set about the task of setting up a collective bargaining schedule and putting together his salary cap proposal. The negotiations could begin in the next few weeks, but they could go on throughout the season.
The union is eager to get started, too, but Fehr said Wednesday that there is some groundwork to be done before negotiations can begin.
"It depends upon how much preliminary work needs to be done," he said. "We'll have to do our own analysis of their proposal."
Ravitch attempted to get the negotiations off on a cooperative note by agreeing to a union proposal for increased revenues from the new tier of playoffs this year, but union officials still are skeptical of the owners' attempts to forge a "partnership" with the players.
The union has called on the owners to give the players more of a voice in management concerns if they want to pursue a revenue-based partnership. Ravitch does not see the connection.
"Football and basketball have this type of [salary cap arrangement] with the players," Ravitch said, "and in neither of -- those cases do the players have control over the conducting of business. It is not by precedent that a salary cap system has to be accompanied by control."
Therein may lie the obstacle to an agreement, but Ravitch remains hopeful that the players and owners can improve a relationship that has resulted in work stoppages each of the past seven times a new Basic Agreement has been reached.
"I believe baseball has suffered a lot by the conflict between the owners and players," Ravitch said. "I think the players and owners have got to work together to market their game. I hope we can work together to achieve a common benefit."