Umpires to discuss decertifying their union

Meeting here today could lead to new organization

November 02, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

More than 60 major-league umpires are expected to attend a meeting in Baltimore today to discuss the possible decertification of the Major League Baseball Umpires Association and the formation of a new union.

The Major League Umpires Independent Organizing Committee hopes to persuade a majority of umpires to topple longtime union czar Richie Phillips and put the future of the 93 members of the existing union in new hands. Phillips is not expected to attend the meeting, which will take place at the Inner Harbor Days Inn.

The dissident movement gained momentum under veteran umpires Joe Brinkman, Dave Phillips and John Hirschbeck after 22 umpires lost their jobs in an ill-advised job action in July. The organizing committee is being advised by Baltimore attorneys Ron Shapiro and Joel Smith, who are expected to make a lengthy presentation at today's meeting.

No official vote will be taken. The organizing committee has petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold a new election to determine who will represent the umpires in collective bargaining talks with ownership, and that vote will be taken by mail later this month.

Richie Phillips clearly overestimated the union's leverage when -- in an attempt to jump-start collective bargaining negotiations -- he advised his membership to resign en masse the day after the All-Star Game. Major League Baseball officials quickly announced that they would accept the resignations, and the union was all but fractured in the rush by a large number of umpires to rescind them.

In all, 22 umpires were replaced on their self-imposed Sept. 2 termination date, though Major League Baseball eventually agreed to pay all of them for the remainder of the season.

Phillips, whose confrontational bargaining approach helped the umpires make great advances in salary and working conditions, finally pushed too hard, and the owners called his bluff.

He was under fire from a dissident segment of the union membership, which made an unsuccessful attempt to dislodge him earlier this year. The ill-fated resignation plan created a new clamor for his removal, but the organizing committee must persuade a majority of the union membership to vote to decertify the MLBUA.

The number of umpires who have agreed to attend today's meeting appears to be a strong indication that there is significant support for a leadership change, though there likely will be many union loyalists in attendance.

The organizing committee hopes to make a convincing argument that a new union will provide the only hope for the 22 disenfranchised umpires to return to work, since baseball ownership seems unwilling to make any further concessions to Phillips.

Shapiro, who has helped broker settlements between the owners and players union during several difficult labor disputes, is expected to promote a plan to persuade ownership to absorb the terminated umpires into a new system of five-man umpiring crews.

Shapiro and Smith have been mentioned as possible candidates to lead a new union, but the organizers have said repeatedly that the goal of the committee is to form a self-governed organization and avoid giving too much power to one person -- particularly someone who is not an umpire.

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