New umps called safe

NLRB denies challenge by ousted Phillips

January 22, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The National Labor Relations Board took another important step toward certifying a new union for major- league umpires yesterday when it shot down an attempt by deposed union chief Richie Phillips to challenge the election that decertified the Major League Baseball Umpires Association.

The ruling set the stage for the Independent Umpires Organizing Committee to begin representing major-league umpires in negotiations with Major League Baseball on a new labor contract, though Phillips and MLBUA president Jerry Crawford still have the option of filing one more appeal before the NLRB certifies the new union.

"The NLRB decision removes any doubt that major-league umpires will be represented by a new union," said John Hirschbeck, one of the umpires who spearheaded the effort to wrest control of the union from Phillips. "Because of Ron Shapiro and the efforts of our two lawyers, Joel Smith and Larry Gibson, we now have the opportunity to move forward in the best interests of all umpires, the game of baseball and the public. The only result of an appeal would be to delay the inevitable and slow down bargaining on a new contract."

Phillips had challenged the lopsided election on the grounds that the new organizing committee had been illegally influenced by baseball management, but NLRB hearing officer David E. Leach ruled in New York that the election -- in which umpires approved a new union by a 55-37 margin -- was legal.

Phillips has 14 days to appeal that ruling to the five-member NLRB panel in Washington, but it appears unlikely to be overturned. "I believe it's now time for Richie Phillips to yield to the will of a clear majority of the umpires," said Shapiro, who has advised Hirschbeck and fellow organizers Joe Brinkman and Dave Phillips throughout the complicated decertification process. "It's time for him to step aside and recognize the interests of the umpires before anyone else."

MLBUA attorney Pat Campbell said yesterday that the decision on whether to appeal the ruling has not been made.

"If after we read the opinion, we conclude there are grounds for an appeal, then we'll appeal," he said.

The election challenge has been widely viewed as a desperate attempt at self-preservation by the longtime union leader, who engineered the disastrous resignation strategy that cost 22 veteran umpires their jobs.

The fate of those umpires could still rest in his hands -- since Richie Phillips continues to represent them in an arbitration case against Major League Baseball -- but the new union has indicated that their reinstatement will be a priority in pending collective bargaining negotiations with baseball management.

Those negotiations cannot start, however, until Phillips either gives up his attempt to block the certification of the new union or exhausts his appeals.

"I would hope that he would stop here," Hirschbeck said in a telephone interview. "I would hope that he and Jerry Crawford would realize that for the good of the union -- if this is really about umpires -- it should stop here. Not only did the umpires decide by a 2-1 vote, but it has been upheld in court."

Hirschbeck and the other insurgent umpires remain supportive of Phillips' attempts to win back the jobs of the disenfranchised umpires through arbitration, but feel they have a better chance of accomplishing that goal through negotiation. They will continue to be governed by the collective bargaining agreement that expired Dec. 31 until a new labor contract is negotiated.

"We can't negotiate until we're certified," Hirschbeck said. "We want to give them [the displaced umpires] every possible option -- arbitration and negotiation. Hopefully that [arbitration] will work out, but they have another option if we can get to the negotiating table."

The organizing committee appears to be reaching the successful end of a year-long battle to put control of the union back in the hands of rank-and-file umpires. Their first attempt to overthrow Phillips fell short, but the ill-fated resignation gambit re-energized support for a new union.

Phillips charged in his election challenge that the organizing committee was being illegally influenced by the Commissioner's Office, but Smith and Gibson -- both Baltimore labor specialists -- convinced the NLRB that there was no legal basis for overturning the election.

"I said at the time that I knew of no basis for their objections," Smith said yesterday. "Now, it's a matter of whether they appeal, but it's time to move on. I believe that if an appeal is filed, it will be a futile appeal."

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