Owners have more than salary under their caps

August 27, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- The major issue blocking a settlement in the 16-day-old baseball strike may be ownership's proposed salary cap, but there are enough other points of contention to keep this labor dispute alive well into the off-season.

In addition to the salary cap proposal, there is a long list of other provisions that Major League Baseball Players Association officials fear would roll back the collective bargaining clock into the early 1970s.

Management representatives say that all of the peripheral issues could be settled quickly -- or traded off -- if the players would only accept a new player compensation system. But the sweeping nature of the "non-economic" issues has left the union wondering whether there is more to the ownership agenda than meets the public eye.

In a lengthy document sent to the union membership earlier this season, the union outlined ownership's demands and cautioned the players of the possibly dramatic effects of some provisions.

The proposal would not be considered so onerous by the union if there wasn't the distinct possibility that the owners will declare an impasse in the negotiations later this year and implement a new player compensation system. There is some question whether these peripheral provisions legally could be included, but they may be considered part of management's last offer for the purpose of implementation.

The "non-economic" issues are not non-economic at all. They affect the current and future earning power of players in a significant way. The proposal includes the elimination of the 20 percent maximum salary cut rule for arbitration-eligible players and potential free agents, removal of some arbitration rights and union concessions in almost every area affecting an individual player's economic relationship with his club.

"If they implement that," said union director Donald Fehr, "it's just old-fashioned union-busting."

Ownership negotiator Richard Ravitch vehemently denied that is part of the ownership agenda, and reiterated his position on the importance of a strong players union.

"That's errant nonsense," he said. "I've said many times publicly and privately that baseball needs a strong union. It can't function without the players being ably represented. They have been, and I hope they continue to be."

The players can only take Ravitch at his word, but the proposal was constructed in consultation with the 28 owners, and there remains deep resentment and distrust toward ownership that dates through several labor confrontations and a series of collusion grievances.

The most onerous of the lesser proposals, according to the union directive, are a provision that would allow the owners to release a player for any reason and an ambiguous clause that would allow the owners more flexibility to negotiate with a player outside of the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.

There has been no serious negotiation on these issues, which leaves room to wonder if the owners legally can include them in an implemented settlement. The union likely would argue that since the parties did not negotiate to an impasse on those issues, they cannot be imposed unilaterally, but Fehr concedes the labor dispute would have to get into court before that argument could be made.

"We're talking about turning back 20-25 years' worth of progress," Fehr said. "They would only do that [unilaterally impose those proposals] if they are insisting that the strike go into next year."

That probably won't happen. If the negotiations go to a declared impasse, the owners might be more likely to impose only the revenue-based salary cap system, since going farther would diminish the likelihood of persuading the players to break ranks and return to work.

The list of "non-economic" goals, after all, constituted a first formal offer from management. The players also made a proposal that calls for improved working conditions, but it was viewed as little more than an attempt to define the other end of the collective bargaining spectrum.

If nothing else, the far-reaching management proposal is a further illustration of the ideological division between the players and owners -- a division that has frozen negotiations and carried the players strike into its third week.

There were no formal negotiations yesterday, but Ravitch indicated that they could resume as soon as Monday if that is the suggestion of the federal mediation team. Fehr remains less optimistic about the resumption of bargaining.

"We're hearing nothing at all," he said. "I have no reason to believe that talks will resume any time soon."

Fehr seemed more optimistic, however, that Congress soon will put pressure on Major League Baseball by again challenging the antitrust exemption that allows the game to act as a legal monopoly. The exemption could be addressed soon after Congress returns to work in early September.

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