RYE BROOK, N.Y. -- Baseball owners may have suffered a significant setback in their attempt to implement a new economic system when the National Labor Relations Board announced yesterday that it soon will issue a pair of complaints charging management with unfair labor practices.
The complaints both stem from the owners' decision to withhold $7.8 million in All-Star Game revenues that traditionally go into the Major League Baseball Players Association's pension and benefits fund.
The announcement couldn't have come at a worse time for the ownership bargaining committee, which has been using the threat of a declared impasse to pressure the union into accepting a drastically altered player compensation system.
The owners are scheduled to meet this afternoon in Chicago to approve an impasse declaration and the immediate implementation of their modified (Nov. 17) salary cap proposal, but the potential success of that strategy was placed in jeopardy by the NLRB announcement.
The case eventually will be heard by an administrative law judge -- probably in about three months -- but the timing of the complaint left room to wonder if the NLRB was sending a not-so-subtle message that owners will be on shaky legal ground if they implement a salary cap today. Union officials believe that to be the case, but NLRB general counsel Fred Feinstein said otherwise in a prepared statement from his office in Washington.
"The complaint deals only with the failure to make the pension payment," Feinstein said. "I recognize that the parties are engaged in negotiations in an effort to conclude a new collective bargaining agreement and bring an end to the strike. Their contractual dispute will not be settled by the NLRB, but must be settled by the parties themselves. I encourage them to use every effort to do so."
Ownership attorney Chuck O'Connor said that the complaint would not have much impact on future litigation, but conceded the possibility that the owners may decide to settle the case rather than leave it open during the critical impasse phase. "I believe it will have little or no effect," O'Connor said. "I think it is a bit overblown."
Nevertheless, the complaints confirm that the owners may have made made a huge blunder when they withheld the All-Star Game payment. Ownership negotiator Richard Ravitch insisted at the time that the owners were under no obligation to make the payment because the labor contract had expired on Dec. 31, 1993.
Ravitch, who since has been replaced by Boston Red Sox general partner John Harrington, may have miscalculated. Even if he didn't, the net gain to the 28 owners was so negligible that the decision -- in retrospect -- seems amazingly petty.
tTC "Just because you have an expired contract doesn't mean that you can change the conditions of employment without an impasse," a labor department source said.
Not only does the complaint look like a sure winner for the union, it can be used as evidence of bad-faith bargaining if the union decides to contest a declared impasse.
"It is very significant," said union lawyer Doyle Pryor. "If we end up having to file another charge that they haven't bargained in good faith, we'll be filing it with an agency that already knows they [the owners] have bargained in bad faith -- at least in one respect."
That doesn't mean the owners are certain to fail in their attempt to change the economic face of baseball, but it could force them to pursue a more flexible bargaining strategy.
Union officials are hoping that the owners recognize that an impasse declaration will be more trouble than it's worth and continue to work toward a negotiated settlement.