WASHINGTON -- Pressure is building on both sides to settle baseball's protracted labor dispute, but the Major League Baseball Players Association left little doubt yesterday that it is willing to remain on strike until ownership retreats or the government imposes a settlement.
Collective bargaining negotiations are scheduled to resume today in Washington, and the owners are expected to present a comprehensive new proposal, but it will take a dramatic shift in their hard-line stance to bring a quick end to the stalemate that has existed for 5 1/2 months.
The union's executive board met yesterday at the Mayflower Hotel and voted to maintain the freeze on signings that has been in effect since the owners declared an impasse in the negotiations and unilaterally implemented a salary cap. The embargo may eventually result in a talent glut if a settlement is reached -- and perhaps even work to ownership's advantage -- but the players have chosen to keep it in effect on principle.
"There had been a lot of speculation about that," said union director Donald Fehr. "The board voted unanimously to continue that recommendation until the board recommends or directs otherwise.
"We believe that contracts should only be signed under a system that everybody agrees to. We believe that the [imposed] settlement is unlawful and when the appropriate government agencies rule on that, the players will be vindicated."
Fehr was referring to the National Labor Relations Board, but the dispute may be settled at a much higher level if there is no progress by President Clinton's target date of next Monday.
The administration has left every indication that it will push for special legislation to end the dispute if nothing significant happens by then.
The union is calling that a positive step, but an imposed settlement likely would split the difference in the two positions and leave both sides unsatisfied with the final result. Fehr acknowledged that, but held out hope that the prospect of a third-party settlement would prod both sides to compromise.
Forty-six players attended yesterday's meeting, including Orioles player representatives Jim Poole and Mike Mussina.
The board discussed a wide variety of topics, but did not deviate significantly from the positions that it has taken throughout the negotiations. In short, the players left it up to the owners to make the next move.
"We want to put the onus of these negotiations on the owners," said Kansas City Royals pitcher David Cone. "In no way, shape or form do we want to give the appearance that we are signing on to a salary cap."
The union also decided to advise all players on 40-man major-league rosters -- including minor-leaguers with no major-league experience -- to stay away from spring training, and discussed the future status of union benefits for managers, coaches and trainers who work with replacement players.
"That issue will be discussed with the managers, coaches and trainers at a meeting on Monday in Dallas," Fehr said. "We'll talk about that issue and how it affects them. It was reported erroneously that there were threats made about health care, collusion and licensing funds. No one has been threatened with the loss of existing benefits."
Despite an unfavorable antitrust ruling in a recent case involving the NBA salary cap, the players feel they are gaining momentum in their two-front legal assault on the ownership position.
Fehr released an outline of a Congressional Research Service study that supported the union contention that the owners are at odds with their stated goals in this collective bargaining dispute.
The study indicated that the system implemented on Dec. 23 would result in only a 44 percent revenue split for the players and would distribute most of management's revenue gain to the large-market clubs.