Owners returning to plate, but only first base is open

November 17, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

The stalled baseball negotiations were expected to move forward today for the first time since the players went on strike Aug. 12, but it remains unclear whether a new proposal devised by owners will be attractive enough to the union to end the stalemate.

Management's salary cap proposal is off the table, but it will be replaced with a taxation plan that is intended to have a similar effect on the game's total payroll. The union has resisted attempts to hold down salaries, and isn't likely to say yes to a plan that might discourage clubs from signing big-ticket players.

Still, special mediator William J. Usery seemed optimistic that the negotiations, which resumed today at the Dulles Airport Hyatt Regency Hotel in Herndon, Va., finally are on the right track. He expressed hope at the conclusion of last week's three-day negotiating session that the two bargaining units would remain at the table until an agreement is reached.

That's possible, but it flies in the face of any coherent management strategy. If the owners were willing to make a significant compromise, why would they wait until after they lost two months of the regular season, their first three-tiered playoffs and hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket and television revenues?

The owners could be just a few weeks away from declaring a negotiating impasse and imposing work rules unilaterally. They still are bound by an internal rule that requires 21 clubs to ratify a settlement. And any settlement must meet requirements the owners set up along with their revenue-sharing plan in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in January.

"There is a narrow set of approved rules that came out of Fort Lauderdale," said one high-ranking club official. "The salary cap and the revenue plan are a package, and there really isn't any material room [for changes] without going back to the owners. Whatever comes out is going to have to go back to the 28 owners to vote on."

In short, the taxation plan that goes before the union today would have to lead to the same kind of payroll restrictions as the salary cap, or the owners would have to go back to square one on revenue sharing. Not a comforting thought for anyone who was involved in the protracted negotiations that led to that first step in management's proposed economic restructuring.

"We'd have to go back to all the owners with the whole package, but I assume that the revenue-sharing plan would stay the way it is," acting commissioner Bud Selig said yesterday.

After last weekend's labor summit in Rye Brook, N.Y., union officials expressed guarded optimism about a breakthrough, but there was also room for the cynical view that the new ownership proposal might be a transparent attempt to prove good-faith bargaining before owners seek to implement new work rules in early December.

Management has the right under federal labor law to impose its last best offer unilaterally if negotiations reach an impasse. To make a declared impasse stick, however, the owners must be able to counter union charges that they did not bargain in good faith.

Boston Red Sox general partner John Harrington indicated last week that the delivery of a new proposal would not necessarily disqualify the owners from imposing a salary cap unilaterally. The letter of the impasse law allows management to impose the last offer that was the subject of good faith bargaining, so the owners apparently feel they can revert to the cap if the players do not seriously consider the new plan.

Perhaps that is their intention, but Selig insists that the new overture is genuine.

"The objective is to find an alternative that addresses the concerns that we have," Selig said. "We have to put this game back together, and the best way to do that is at the bargaining table."

That process could start this weekend, but there is little chance it can be concluded in such a short period of time. The central economic issue would have to be settled -- within parameters that would lead to quick approval by 21 clubs -- and dozens of peripheral issues would have to be addressed. None of them is significant enough to stop a deal, but the issues could take weeks to resolve.

The owners have a growing sense of urgency. They would like a new economic system in place before the Dec. 7 deadline for offering arbitration to free agents, or at least before the Dec. 20 deadline for tendering contracts.

There are no such time constraints on the players, who will suffer no further economic discomfort from the labor dispute until Opening Day. If they are under any pressure to settle, it stems from the owners' ability to declare an impasse and the steps management has taken to make the impasse stand up before the National Labor Relations Board.

There is the possibility that both sides finally have recognized the need to make significant concessions in the best interests of the sport. If that is the case, then Usery has succeeded where earlier attempts failed.

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