Longtime union chief Richie Phillips finally struck out yesterday. The National Labor Relations Board denied his final attempt to overturn the election that decertified his Major League Umpires Association and sanctioned a new umpires union.
The new union, which was organized by veteran umpires Joe Brinkman, John Hirschbeck and Dave Phillips, is now free to begin negotiating a labor contract with Major League Baseball, though first it will meet Sunday in Phoenix to elect officers and choose a negotiating committee.
"We're looking forward to moving ahead with baseball and starting a new relationship and trying to get all umpires to come together," said Hirschbeck.
It has been a long fight. The first attempt to change union leadership failed nearly a year ago, when Richie Phillips' strong backing from National League umpires allowed him to withstand a challenge from the insurgent faction of the union. But the old union unraveled after Phillips persuaded much of his membership to submit resignations in July in an attempt to force ownership to begin contract negotiations early.
The scheme failed miserably when many American League umpires refused to resign and others quickly withdrew their resignations as Major League Baseball began hiring minor-league umpires to replace them. The resignation gambit left 22 veteran umpires unemployed and turned out to be the catalyst for the formation of the Independent Major League Umpires Organizing Committee.
That bulky title has been replaced by the World Umpires Association, which was affirmed by a 57-35 vote in November. Despite the lopsided outcome, the old union fought for nearly three months to get the election overturned -- delaying the start of collective bargaining well past the Dec. 31 expiration of the most recent labor agreement.
The old union first appealed to the New York office of the NLRB, charging that management and the new union illegally conspired to overthrow the previous union leadership, but hearing officer David E. Leach III ruled in favor of the new union. Phillips then took his case to the five-member NLRB in Washington, but was rebuffed again when the board endorsed Leach's decision and gave final certification to the World Umpires Association.
The three-paragraph decision was signed by chairman John C. Truesdale and board members Sarah M. Fox and Peter J. Hurtgen.
"It's a case of, you work hard, you do right and get affirmed by the highest authority -- you feel good," said Baltimore attorney Ron Shapiro, who was instrumental in the organizing effort. "It would have been better for everyone if the process had not been dragged out. It's time to move forward, starting with the election on Sunday."
Phillips may have hung around a little too long, but the umpires still owe him a debt of gratitude for the dramatic improvement in salary and working conditions during his tenure as union executive director. The top umpires salary when he came to power in 1978 was $40,000. Now, the highest-paid umpires make $293,000.
"I think that over his 21 years, he did a lot of good for umpires," Hirschbeck said, "but there's a large group of us that thinks it's time to move in a new direction with baseball."
Phillips just wasn't willing to cede power after a large segment of his membership became disenchanted with the union power structure. Many felt that a cadre of umpires close to Phillips maintained a disproportionate amount of influence over union affairs.
The new union, organized with the help of Shapiro and Baltimore labor specialist Joel Smith, hopes to represent all 93 major-league umpires, including the 22 who were disenfranchised when Major League Baseball accepted their resignations. The grievance pending over their termination still is being handled by Phillips and the MLUA, but the fate of those umpires also is expected to be discussed during the coming collective bargaining talks with the new union.
So far, 50 of the 71 umpires employed by the majors have signed up for the new union. Hirschbeck said efforts to recruit from the 22 disenfranchised umpires -- many of them loyal to Phillips -- have met with limited success.
"We've attempted to talk with the 22, just as recently as two weeks ago," Hirschbeck said. "Some were responsive to talking with us; many were not."
The organizing committee said from the start that the rehiring of the 22 terminated umpires would be a collective bargaining priority, but that was before some of those umpires assisted in Phillips' continuing effort to thwart the certification of the new union. Now, it appears likely the WUA will negotiate only on behalf of those who choose to join the new union.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.