Umpires confer on new union

Shapiro moderates meeting attended by 52 in Baltimore

November 03, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

More than half the membership of the Major League Baseball Umpires Association (MLBUA) showed up at Baltimore's Days Inn yesterday to discuss the possible formation of a new union.

Despite pressure from the current union leadership to stay away from the daylong summit, 52 umpires attended the meeting, which was called by the Major League Umpires Independent Organizing Committee and moderated by Baltimore attorney Ron Shapiro.

American League umpire Joe Brinkman, who along with John Hirschbeck and Dave Phillips have led the movement to topple union czar Richie Phillips, said the turnout made him "very optimistic" that a majority of umpires would vote to form a new labor organization when the National Labor Relations Board distributes mail-in ballots to all 93 members of the collective bargaining unit later this week.

The ballots will be mailed out tomorrow and the votes will be counted on Nov. 30. It will take 47 votes (50 percent plus one) to decertify the existing union and put new leadership in place.

"Our goal is to form a union that is for the umpires and by the umpires," Hirschbeck said. "We want a democracy where every member is important."

Hirschbeck and the other dissident umpires began raising questions about Richie Phillips' leadership 15 months ago, but did not have the support to prevent the union from extending his contract. Phillips has been head of the union since 1978. The movement gained new momentum after Phillips convinced a large portion of the union membership to resign en masse in an attempt to jump-start collective bargaining talks with Major League Baseball -- a move that cost 22 umpires their jobs.

Six of those 22 disenfranchised umpires took part in yesterday's meetings. One of them, National League umpire Joe West, came along with Terry Tata and Mark Johnston to represent the existing union. Phillips did not attend.

"They were part of the delegation sent here by [union president] Jerry Crawford and the Major League Baseball Umpires Association," Hirschbeck said. "That was their role here. One of the biggest issues for them was the jobs of the 22 [terminated] umpires, and that's also one of the biggest issues for the independent organizing committee."

The union hopes to get those 22 jobs back through an arbitration process that begins this month. The dissident umpires expressed support for the arbitration process, but also expressed confidence that a new union would be able to negotiate the reinstatement of the 22 umpires.

Crawford sent out a memo to union members condemning the attempt to organize a new union.

"We strongly oppose the validity of the challenger's stated objectives," Crawford wrote. "We are further deeply troubled by the timing of the decertification petition. Frankly, the timing of the decertification petition shows such insensitivity to the 22 that it is clear that the challenger's organizers have put their personal agenda ahead of the careers of the 22. We therefore cannot encourage umpires to attend."

The dissident umpires tried to allay those concerns by voicing their support for the arbitration process that the union hopes will reclaim the jobs of the disenfranchised umpires. The likelihood of those umpires being reinstated through arbitration seems slim, however, because they resigned voluntarily.

The new union would attempt to defuse the tense relationship that exists between the MLBUA and baseball ownership by employing Shapiro's "win-win" style of non-confrontational negotiation. The umpires hope to convince ownership to absorb the displaced umpires, perhaps by increasing the size of umpiring crews from four umpires to five.

Shapiro "stressed from the beginning that we need to use a constructive approach to solving our problems, not through confrontation," Hirschbeck said.

That would be direct contrast to the contentious style of Phillips, who pushed baseball owners to the end of their patience when he filed a grievance to prevent the enforcement of a new strike zone earlier in the year, then devised the disastrous and self-destructive resignation gambit in July.

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