A strike force for a change

September 01, 1994|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writer

Marvin Miller, the former head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, changed baseball's labor situation forever with arbitration and free agency.

Today Miller envisions a whole new ballgame. If the strike cancels the World Series and the owners declare a labor impasse and implement a salary cap, Miller said the striking players could be working for a rival league next season.

"If there are some real entrepreneurs out there, you might see some competition for the first time," Miller said. "Despite the last expansion, there are viable buying groups in eight different cities -- in some cities, multiple groups. The possibility of a six- to eight-team league is a realistic one."

Congress could make Miller's scenario possible by repealing all or part of baseball's antitrust exemption. The sport's last on-field challenge, the Federal League of 1914-1915, precipitated a 1922 Supreme Court decision that granted Major League Baseball's unique status as a government-protected monopoly. Unlike the NBA, NHL, NFL and most major American corporations, Major League Baseball is not subject to antitrust lawsuits.

If the owners declare an impasse and impose a salary cap before next season, the players could continue to strike or challenge the impasse with the National Labor Relations Board.

Congress, which will hold hearings on the antitrust exemption next month, could give the players another option. If Congress repeals the exemption, players could file an antitrust lawsuit that could threaten the game's foundations -- franchise relocation, expansion, minor leagues, local television contracts -- and make it more susceptible to a challenge from a rival league.

That's why the players and the owners, although they cannot agree on much at the bargaining table, have lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Whichever side wins in Washington will have the upper hand in the current labor negotiations and in determining the future of the game.

The advantage in the negotiations now belongs to the owners. They can declare an impasse after good-faith, arms-length negotiations and implement their last offer -- a salary cap.

Without congressional repeal of the exemption, the players' only legal recourse is to file an unfair labor practices charge with the NLRB. The NLRB's decision could be subject to a lengthy appeals process in federal court; a final resolution could take several years. Legal experts do not think the players have much chance of winning.

"They would have to show some evidence that they're not at impasse, that there is some movement," said William B. Briggs, who teaches sports law at Cornell and University of Pennsylvania law schools. "If the owners say, 'We're at impasse,' I don't know how the players can demonstrate that they're not at impasse right now."

Bid to take control

The owners want a salary cap. The players don't. Briggs has been telling his students for years that this hard-line position is the owners' best strategy.

"If the owners are really smart, let the players strike, reach an impasse, implement a system, and it's only three, four, five years to the year 2000," Briggs said. "Then they've got control of the game."

Unless Congress repeals the antitrust exemption. It is not likely. Since 1972, when the Supreme Court ruled that the question of the exemption comes under the jurisdiction of Congress, no bill has ever made it out of committee.

That's because the owners have a powerful voice in Congress. They have contributed $180,000 to current congressional members, according to a Common Cause magazine article published last year.

"It's individual donations," said Eugene Callahan, the head lobbyist for Major League Baseball. "Every owner is a leader in his or her own community, I wouldn't be surprised if many of them gave."

More than money

It is more than just money. Just ask Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio). On June 23 the Senate Judiciary Committee defeated Metzenbaum's bill, 10-7. The bill would have repealed the exemption as it relates to labor issues.

Many of Metzenbaum's Democratic allies voted against the bill. Outsiders blame Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine), the outgoing Senate majority leader who has said he is open to the possibility of being baseball's next commissioner, for influencing his fellow members.

Not Metzenbaum.

"I think Mitchell was as clean as a hound's tooth, as far as staying out of it," Metzenbaum said. "I don't know a scintilla of evidence that he lifted a finger one way or the other, and knowing him, I know he would not. The man has integrity."

If Mitchell is protecting the exemption, he has more battles on his hands. As the strike continues, the legislation mounts.

Metzenbaum, along with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), has introduced compromise legislation that repeals the exemption until the strike is settled. In the House, Reps. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) and Mike Synar (D-Okla.) have proposed a similar bill that takes away the exemption if either side imposes anything unilaterally, like a salary cap.

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