Baseball's bitter labor dispute has defied two mediation attempts and the intervention of the president of the United States. Now, it is expected to skip past Congress like a sharp one-hopper and roll all the way to the wall.
In the aftermath of Tuesday night's dramatic White ANALYSIS
House bargaining session, both sides claimed the moral high ground and both tried to play it to maximum public relations advantage.
The players said that they were ready to go along with the administration's request for binding arbitration. The owners said they were ready to accept the surprisingly favorable settlement recommended by special mediator William J. Usery.
So, the evening ended in a draw, or a stalemate -- to use a term more in keeping with the true nature of the negotiations -- and left the Clinton administration as the latest victim of a dispute that is beginning to look unresolvable.
What really happened at the White House? Both sides were serious in their proclamations of righteous indignation, but neither side truly offered to compromise. The owners went before the administration ready to accept Usery's settlement recommendation, but it was so heavily slanted in their direction that its only real value was in its ability to embarrass an understandably resistant union. The players were willing to accept binding arbitration, but only because they knew that the owners would never go along. It was the only way to control the damage caused by Usery's recommendation.
The players have offered to go back to work in 1995 under the old work rules, but that is no revelation. They have been willing tTC to work under the old Basic Agreement all along. The union also offered to go back to work in 1995 while a presidential commission examines the economics of the game, then to resume negotiations next year and -- if necessary -- submit the dispute to binding arbitration then.
Those options sound pretty good with the scheduled opening of spring training a week away, but the owner ship response makes just as much sense. The game has been shut down for nearly six months. The World Series went unplayed for the first time in 90 years. Does anyone really want to play the 1995 season with this dispute still hanging like a toxic cloud over both sides?
Union officials still are trying to figure out how they got blindsided. The Usery recommendation gave the owners almost everything they wanted, minus a few percentage points here and there.
Why would Usery -- who is being paid $60,000 a month by each side -- present a proposal so inflammatory that it prompted union officials to seek his removal from the negotiations? Why would the special mediator appear to take the owners' side at a time when the players seemed close to convincing the National Labor Relations Board that management had failed to bargain in good faith throughout the protracted dispute?
The answer may lie somewhere inside the White House, where President Clinton had put substantial political capital on the line when he decided to take an active role in the dispute. It was becoming apparent that he had little chance to get Congress to carry out any threat of special legislation, which left Usery to try to pry both sides out of their entrenched positions without any real leverage.
He couldn't do that with a proposal that both sides easily could reject, so he apparently decided to lure the owners into line with an acceptable formula and shock the union into a more flexible position. Perhaps he hoped that the lopsided recommendation would soften both sides enough to push the dispute into voluntary arbitration. It almost worked.
No doubt, the White House was aware of a Washington Post/ABC poll that showed a disgusted public leaning toward the owners, so there was always the danger that the baseball dispute would become a political football. No one knows if that is what happened, but it is obvious the administration was desperate to find a way out of another potentially embarrassing situation.
Usery was appointed by the Clinton administration in October and hailed as the top mediator in the country, but in four months of on-again, off-again negotiations, he failed to get a significant concession from either side.
Though union officials were outraged, it remains unclear whether Usery's recommendation -- which would have levied a 50 percent tax on excess payrolls, phased out salary arbitration and given the owners a lot of other things they never expected to get -- was intentionally inflammatory. Perhaps by design, it took the focus off the administration's inability to force a settlement by dramatically changing the dynamics of the dispute.