When owners join in, will they play?

August 20, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Did the owners blink?

The deadlocked baseball negotiations are expected to be resumed next week with individual owners at the bargaining table for the first time, but it is unclear whether that represents a change in attitude on the part of baseball management.

The owners previously had been barred from direct participation in collective bargaining by an internal rule that designated chief negotiator Richard Ravitch as sole bargaining agent. Thursday, they agreed to a proposal by federal mediators to rescind that rule and send five owners to New York to join the stalled negotiations.

If that was viewed as a glimmer of hope that the 9-day-old baseball strike might soon end, it also could be viewed in an entirely different light.

Management may be softening a hard-line position that has polarized the two negotiating teams -- though Ravitch has strongly denied that -- or the owners may be making the compulsory moves in a legal chess game that could culminate in an impasse declaration.

The owners eventually could declare an impasse and impose their salary cap proposal unilaterally if they feel they have exhausted all reasonable means of negotiation and there is no progress toward a settlement. They would have to weather a legal onslaught by the Major League Baseball Players Association, however, to make it stick.

Union lawyers undoubtedly would counter by filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging that the owners had engaged in bad-faith bargaining. That would trigger an NLRB investigation that would examine every aspect of this collective bargaining process.

The acceptance of federal mediation could be presented by the owners as evidence of good-faith bargaining, and what happens behind closed doors -- even efforts to frustrate the mediation attempt -- would be difficult to document because the mediators cannot be called to testify at an NLRB hearing.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has an interagency agreement with the NLRB to prevent such testimony and preserve the neutrality of the agency. The mediation service also has been successful in quashing subpoenas that would compel mediators to testify in federal court.

The owners do not have to make concessions. They are required only to bargain diligently and sincerely to attempt to resolve the dispute.

It would be possible to declare a legal impasse without ever stepping away from the salary cap proposal, but it would be difficult to justify if management was openly uncooperative with federal mediators.

Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, the chairman of baseball's Executive Council, denied yesterday that there was any master plan to protect an impasse declaration. The decision to take the advice of the mediation team, he said, was a sincere attempt to further the negotiations.

"That never crossed my mind," Selig said. "Anything that has a chance to work, why not? I think both sides ought to find every possible procedure that might help. Only good can come of that."

Still, it is too early to estimate what kind of influence FMCS director John Calhoun Wells will be able to wield. He will bring Ravitch and union director Donald Fehr together on Monday to set up a collective bargaining schedule for the coming week, but it is not known what role he'll play in the negotiations.

It also is too early to tell if the presence of individual owners will change the chemistry of the labor dispute. Fehr, who spent weeks blasting management for not allowing individual owners to sit at the bargaining table, considers the change in management strategy a positive development, but remains skeptical.

"I detect no sense of urgency at all on behalf of Dick Ravitch," Fehr said.

"If there were, I think he would have suggested that we meet sooner than next week."

The agreement to bring certain owners into the negotiations may also lead to a reduction in the number of player representatives at the meetings. Fehr has made a tradition of involving large numbers of union members in negotiating sessions, but the mediation team likely will press both sides to limit representation to the same number of participants -- probably five.

Selig, in consultation with the Executive Council, will decide who the ownership representatives will be during the weekend. "I'm going to spend the whole weekend going over it," he said. "What you want to do is find the best people, and you want the group to be representative of every constituency."

Speculation has centered on Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Philadelphia Phillies chief operating officer David Montgomery, Minnesota Twins general manager Andy MacPhail, Toronto Blue Jays president Paul Beeston and Brewers vice president Wendy Selig-Prieb, the daugher of the Brewers owner.

The players association will draw its player representatives from a subcommittee of the union's executive board. Orioles reliever Jim Poole participated in the last full bargaining session and will be available to attend the next one if he is called upon.

The negotiations will continue to take place in New York for at least the next week, but the labor dispute could be moved to Washington soon. If the dispute stretches into September, the union may request a change of venue to accommodate a new set of player representatives, perhaps moving the talks to Chicago, Dallas or Phoenix.

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