Mediator can't see quick fix

October 15, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer pTC

WASHINGTON -- Former Labor Secretary William Usery has accepted an invitation from President Clinton to mediate the baseball labor dispute, but the initial effect of the action may be to delay the resumption of serious negotiations.

The players and owners have a bargaining session tentatively scheduled for Tuesday in New York, but Usery told reporters at a White House news briefing yesterday that he will need ample time to get up to speed on the stalled negotiations.

"I realize that this is a most difficult dispute," said the 70-year-old mediation specialist. "It is a dispute that cannot be resolved easily or quickly. It will take considerable time and considerable effort."

That wasn't exactly news to the players and owners, who have been grappling with their differences for nearly two years, but each side welcomed Usery into the collective bargaining process and applauded the administration for taking a more active role in the dispute.

The day ended with a brief hand-shaking session with Clinton, who interrupted a busy afternoon just long enough to encourage both sides to work toward a settlement.

"We're delighted that the bargaining process is going to resume," said acting commissioner Bud Selig. "We believe that this is a constructive step that hopefully will come to a successful conclusion."

Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Donald Fehr echoed that sentiment, which is about all that the players and owners have agreed upon since the last time that Labor Secretary Robert Reich tried to use the influence of the federal government to push for a compromise.

Reich, who read a prepared statement at yesterday's news conference, repeated some of the same themes that he carried to the nation in his first attempt to shame the owners into accepting mediation two months ago.

"For the last two months, the sounds of silence have replaced the boys of summer," Reich read. "For the first time since 1904, there will be no World Series. But now -- maybe, just maybe -- fall is bringing some hope."

He announced the appointment of Usery as a special mediator and listed his credentials, but did not have a convincing explanation for why the administration failed to display this same sense of urgency four weeks ago when there still was a chance to save the World Series.

The first attempt at mediation was undertaken in early August by a team from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. That team, led by FMCS director John Calhoun Wells, could not even persuade the players and owners to stay at the bargaining table. The mediators had withdrawn by the time Selig announced in mid-September that the rest of the 1994 schedule, as well as the playoffs and World Series, had been canceled.

"Timing is of the essence," Reich said. "It wasn't clear a month ago that either side was ready. "John Wells contacted us and said that the time was right to bring in a special mediator."

It still isn't clear whether either side will budge from its hard-line bargaining position. While Fehr and Selig were saying all the right things at the podium, the owners were preparing to impose a 45-day freeze on off-season business -- without the approval of the union.

Ownership counsel Chuck O'Connor sent a letter to Fehr on Thursday informing him that the owners would go ahead with the freeze with or without the blessing of the MLBPA. The union countered by advising the owners that the players would not agree to the freeze and would take steps to combat it.

The owners want the freeze because they are not ready to declare impasse and they are not willing to begin doing off-season business in the traditional manner. The union likely will file a grievance charging that the freeze is a form of collusion that long has been prohibited in the baseball labor relationship.

"I basically advised the PRC [Player Relations Committee] to do whatever they are going to do," said union associate general counsel Gene Orza. "We did not agree to a freeze."

The issue is coming to a head because today is the first day for players to file for free agency under the terms of the previous Basic Agreement. Players are expected to begin filing today and will continue to do so for a 15-day period, if only to protect their rights while the uncertain labor situation plays out.

Usery is considered the country's top mediator. He helped end the Pittston miners' strike in 1989 and resolved a coal operators' strike last year. He also is credited with forging a deal that brought together the United Auto Workers, General Motors and the Toyota Motor Corp. for the New United Motors joint venture.

"Obviously, I don't have the power to order anybody to do anything," Usery said. "I hope to use all my powers to persuade them. I accept the challenge. . . I intend to do my utmost to achieve the goals that the Secretary of Labor has set."

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