SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The baseball labor negotiations cleared an important hurdle yesterday, perhaps putting the two bargaining teams into a position to deal directly with the major economic issues and move closer to a settlement.
The Major League Baseball Players Association told the owners yesterday that it will accept management's Fort Lauderdale revenue-sharing plan intact and is willing to make substantial concessions on a luxury tax plan to achieve a settlement.
Union director Donald Fehr revealed that the union had proposed a three-year plan early last month that would impose a 25 percent tax on excess payroll over a threshold of $59 million. That figure was unacceptable to the owners, but union negotiators told them yesterday that the threshold -- 145 percent of the average major-league payroll -- was open for discussion and that they were willing to bring it down "substantially" to make a deal.
"I would like to think there is now a format out there that everyone can agree with," Fehr said. "I consider it a hopeful sign."
No one was ready to predict a quick settlement, but the move was hailed by the owners as a significant step in the right direction. The bargaining teams met several times yesterday and are scheduled to resume negotiations early today, trying to inch closer to a settlement that would allow the 1995 season to begin on time with major-league players.
Another day, another major mood swing in the eight-month collective bargaining ordeal. Tuesday, Colorado Rockies owner
Jerry McMorris predicted a settlement in a matter of days. Thursday, he was so frustrated that he was ready to go home. Last night, he said that the negotiations were back on track.
"I think we are this evening where I thought we would be on Wednesday night," he said. "That's positive."
McMorris had gotten discouraged after a Wednesday night meeting with union attorneys Lauren Rich and Michael Weiner during which the union seemed reluctant to talk seriously about the luxury tax issue. The ownership negotiating team responded by threatening to break off negotiations and turn the dispute over to hard-line owner Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox and heavy-handed labor strategist Robert Ballow.
The level of frustration got so high that acting commissioner Bud Selig and bargaining chief John Harrington packed up and left town. Interestingly enough, Fehr countered by distancing himself from yesterday's talks, explaining that he wanted to make sure that the owners would be "comfortable" with the labor contingent.
The tenor of the negotiations improved to the point where both sides were eager to end an early evening press update to get back to the bargaining table.
Some aspects of the union proposal remained unchanged from the players' previous stated position. The union still is offering a trade-off on salary arbitration -- eliminating it for four- and five-year players in exchange for unrestricted free agency and leaving it in effect for three-year players and the top 17 percent of two-year players.
The tax threshold would have to drop sharply to satisfy the
owners, who were willing to accept a recommendation from special mediator William J. Usery in February that called for a 50 percent tax on payroll in excess of $40 million per team. There has been speculation that the tax rate would end up at about 25 percent, but it will take some work to narrow the $19 million threshold gap -- even with a substantial concession from the union.
Fehr stressed yesterday that the players would agree to a tax plan only if it were a true luxury tax, meaning that the threshold would have to be significantly above the average major-league payroll.
"Is it a monumental breakthrough? No," said ownership attorney Chuck O'Connor. "Is it something that will advance the process instead of retard it? Yes it is. We don't regard it as a breakthrough so much as a significant impediment removed."
The players arrived at a three-year term for the tax plan by taking into consideration the large infusion of cash that will come with a two-team expansion in 1998 and the likelihood that central revenues will rebound.
Major points of the Major League Baseball Players Association's proposal:
Revenue sharing: The players agreed to accept the revenue-sharing plan that the owners agreed upon in Fort Lauderdale in January 1994.
Luxury tax: The players proposed a 25 percent tax on salaries in excess of 145 percent of the average major-league payroll (about $59 million based on 1994 figures), but said that they were willing to come down "substantially" on the threshold figure to get negotiations moving.
Salary arbitration: Four- and five-year players would trade salary arbitration eligibility for unrestricted free agency. Players with less than four years of service who were eligible for arbitration under the old system still would be eligible for arbitration.