Special mediator William J. Usery released a statement yesterday that apparently backs up the contention of the Major League Baseball Players Association that no formal proposal was recommended to either side before Tuesday's five-hour negotiating session at the White House.
Major-league owners embraced Usery's recommendations and released the terms to the media, no doubt hoping to take full public relations advantage of their willingness to end the dispute. Union director Donald Fehr insisted that no formal proposal had been made, and yesterday asked Usery to clarify the situation.
Usery, whose status as mediator appeared to be compromised after he recommended a 50 percent luxury tax and a variety of other provisions that the union found unacceptable, appeased union officials and -- for the time being -- will continue the mediation effort.
"These [concepts] were discussed orally," Usery said, "but were never presented as a final recommendation to the parties or the president. I have learned in the last two days that a document is being circulated that purports to be my final recommendation. It is not. I have never issued any such document."
Management officials say other wise. They expected Usery to present a recommended settlement to both parties if no progress was made by Monday. Ownership sources claim that the management negotiating team went to the White House expecting the Clinton administration to back Usery's proposal.
That didn't happen, of course. The president instead asked both sides to accept binding arbitration (the players said they would, the owners said they wouldn't) and then passed the ball to Congress. For two days, Usery's status remained in doubt. There was speculation that the union would ask him to withdraw from the negotiations. Now, it is management's turn to be upset, but the Usery press release didn't prompt a large ownership outcry.
"That's something a mediator has to say," Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten said. "We know what was proposed to us."
There is some circumstantial evidence to support the owners. If the Usery recommendations did not carry any weight, why were union offi
cials so upset with him in the hours leading up to the White House meeting? Union associate general counsel Eugene Orza was so agitated by one provision, he referred to Usery as "senile." Orza apologized later.
If there was no real proposal, what was Usery doing at the White House on Monday night? He went there because the administration had asked him to prepare a proposed settlement but came back claiming that he needed more time. Does anyone really think that he went to a meeting at the White House just to tell the president that he didn't finish his homework?
There was no question that union officials felt they had been blind-sided on Tuesday afternoon. There also is no question that the ownership bargaining committee contends that the rules were changed between the time it first saw the Usery recommendation and the time the committee got to the White House on Tuesday.
It seems clear that there was a change in the political atmosphere, which may have prompted the administration to alter its strategy at the last moment. The day started with congressional leaders voicing strong reservations about government intervention, so Clinton did the only thing he could. He wiped his fingerprints off the situation by asking for binding arbitration instead of a specific settlement.