Mediator joins baseball negotiations

August 13, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- The first day of the baseball strike was not without a few intriguing developments, though neither side reported any progress after a hastily arranged bargaining session yesterday afternoon.

The owners still want a salary cap, and they moved to solidify their bargaining stance with a gag rule to quell internal dissent. The players still are rock solid against anything that restricts free agency, but did agree along with management to allow the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to get involved in the dispute.

The government agency does not have the power to impose a settlement or call the players back to work, but the involvement of federal mediators almost assures that negotiations will continue on a regular basis.

"We have accepted their offer to participate," said Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. "Maybe they can be of some assistance.

"I have said in the past that mediation is helpful when there is a misunderstanding between the two parties to a negotiation. I don't believe that there is any misunderstanding here, but I don't see how any harm could be done by bringing someone in."

Ownership negotiator Richard Ravitch said essentially the same thing, just days after both sides had declined an offer from Labor Secretary Robert Reich to provide assistance.

"We'll accept any help we can get," Mr. Ravitch said.

Still, the outlook for a settlement remains bleak. The players union asked Mr. Ravitch to return to the bargaining table yesterday to respond to the revenue-sharing proposals that were turned over to management last week. The owners declined to consider any of those proposals, leaving the two sides no closer to a compromise that would allow the season to resume.

"This is a sad day for all of the players, all of the baseball fans and everyone on our staff," Mr. Fehr said after 14 games were called off. "Mark Belanger [union special assistant] and I are a little sadder because we remember what happened on another 12th of the month 13 years and two months ago -- the beginning of a strike that was not settled until 50 days later. We don't know yet if this is going to be like 1981. We certainly hope not."

There was at least one development yesterday that was reminiscent of the 1981 strike. In an attempt to quell a rising tide of internal dissent, acting commissioner Bud Selig sent a fax to every major-league front office ordering his fellow owners to desist from making public comments critical of the management bargaining position.

"It's not a gag order," Mr. Selig told the Associated Press. "You want people to be well-versed in what they're doing, so they know exactly what's going on."

Mr. Selig had told The Sun recently that there was no reason for a gag rule, because the owners were so solidly behind the salary-cap proposal, but he reconsidered after Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris and Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott took public shots at ownership's stance.

Union details proposals

Meanwhile, Mr. Fehr was trying to take the high ground yesterday by making public several of the union's revenue-sharing proposals, including a suggestion that Major League Baseball expand by two or four teams and then distribute the expansion fees disproportionately to benefit small-market clubs.

The MLBPA also proposed a three-part, stopgap measure that would create a subsidy pool for the struggling teams, remove disincentives to experiment with television technology and extend the American League's 80-20 ticket-revenue split to the National League. The share of National League gate receipts that goes to the visiting club is closer to 5 percent, so a 20 percent cut could be significant help to struggling clubs in San Diego, Pittsburgh and Montreal.

Mr. Ravitch dismissed all of the proposals as an attempt by the players to focus attention away from the only significant, negotiable issue -- the price the owners will pay for labor over the next seven years.

"The fundamental question is not how are the clubs going to run themselves internally," Mr. Ravitch said. "That already has been negotiated and resolved. The issue here is a very simple one. The players are out on strike, their average compensation is $1.2 million and all we have been trying to find out is: How much more do they want? We haven't got an answer."

That's because the players always give the same answer. They want whatever the market will bear, a prospect that is considered unbearable by enough of the owners to keep this work stoppage going for quite some time.

"We asked for this meeting hoping that the clubs would respond to the revenue-sharing proposals that we had presented last week," Mr. Fehr said. "Their basic response was that shifting money around doesn't solve the problem, but, apparently, shifting the players' money around will solve the problem."

No one seriously believes that anything short of a surrender on one side or the other will resolve this dispute in the next few days, but both sides had little choice but to submit to mediation.

Federal mediators are expected to meet separately with union and management officials soon. The 50-day dispute in 1981 was mediated by Kenneth Moffett.

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