All talk, little action expected from today's baseball meetings

November 29, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Baseball labor talks are expected to resume early today in Leesburg, Va., but the joint meeting figures to be little more than a prelude to some collective bargaining fireworks next week.

The owners have a proposal on the table that would severely tax teams that break a soft payroll ceiling. They are waiting for an official response from the Major League Baseball Players Association, and still might be waiting when they convene an important ownership meeting in Chicago on Monday.

Management spokesman John Harrington has confirmed that the owners are going to Chicago to discuss the possibility of declaring an impasse in the negotiations and implementing new work rules. With two important baseball deadlines looming, that seems like a very strong possibility. Teams have until Dec. 7 to offer salary arbitration to free agents; Dec. 20 is the last day teams can tender contracts.

There is every indication that the players will choose to stall until then, which would put the owners in the uncomfortable -- and perhaps untenable -- position of declaring an impasse while there is a union counterproposal pending.

"In my estimation, the owners will definitely implement during their Chicago meeting," union associate general counsel Gene Orza said yesterday. "By no means is it certain we'll present a counterproposal before then."

The union received more financial information on the ownership plan last week, so it would be easy enough to argue that the players need more time to analyze all the data and respond to a very complex proposal. The players will hold an executive board meeting on Monday in Atlanta, which provides another pretext for delaying their response to the taxation plan.

Union officials aren't saying how they will proceed today, but it is becoming more and more apparent that special mediator William J. Usery has become little more than a referee in a collective bargaining chess match that is moving into its final stages. Everyone continues to express hope that a settlement is possible while each side quietly prepares to take the fight to a new arena.

If the owners choose to declare an impasse, they'll have to decide whether to implement the salary cap proposal that has been on the table since June, or the taxation plan that was offered to the players 10 days ago.

Either way, the union is certain to contend that there is no legal impasse because the owners failed to bargain in good faith. Then it will be up to the National Labor Relations Board to decide whether to allow the new work rules to be imposed or force the owners to return to the bargaining table.

The owners have the right to declare impasse if they bargain in good faith to a point where further negotiations would be futile. The players have the right to challenge that declaration and ask for relief from the NLRB and -- down the road -- the courts.

The owners' taxation proposal calls for a progressive tax to be levied on the total payroll of clubs that exceed a certain payroll limit. It is different from a salary cap because it does not impose a hard ceiling on payrolls, but the size of the tax in the ownership proposal was large enough to have the same effect as a hard cap.

The union earlier proposed a tax on payrolls and revenues, but it was rejected out of hand by the owners and branded as unresponsive to their financial problems.

The latest management proposal put both sides in the same philosophical ballpark for the first time in the lengthy labor dispute, but the difference between the players' tax proposal (1.6 percent of total payroll and revenues) and the owners' plan (which could exceed 150 percent of every dollar spent in excess of the soft payroll ceiling) makes a negotiated compromise seem highly unlikely.

The owners reportedly are already preparing for implementation and are again considering opening spring training camps with minor-league players if the union does not call off the strike. The Associated Press quoted two unnamed management sources Sunday as saying that Major League Baseball may conduct a survey to find out how the public would respond to replacement players.

That prospect would be particularly unpopular in Baltimore, where the replacement games could bring an end to shortstop Cal Ripken's run at Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games.

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