Owners, players meet late, put stop to public bickering

Major obstacles remain with deadline days away

August 27, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Management and union negotiators suspended their public bickering yesterday and met three times in an attempt to move closer to a new labor agreement, but time is running short.

The strike deadline imposed by the Major League Baseball Players Association is little more than two days away, and there still has been no breakthrough on any of the three most difficult issues facing the bargaining teams.

Ownership negotiators still were waiting late yesterday for a counter-proposal from the union on the enhanced revenue sharing plan and heavy luxury tax system demanded by management.

The owners delivered a modified proposal that lowered the annual revenue sharing transfer amount from $268 million to $263 million and raised the annual thresholds for the luxury tax. Union negotiators were expected to respond some time last night, but both sides chose not to brief the media after a weekend of unpleasant public exchanges threatened to slow the process.

"Both sides agree they want to keep the rhetoric down," Rich Levin, baseball's senior vice president for public relations, told The New York Times last night.

Though major differences remain in the way of an agreement, just the fact that the two bargaining teams hunkered down and spent long hours working yesterday had to be considered progress.

Just two days earlier, management negotiator Rob Manfred blasted the union for making a "regressive" proposal on revenue sharing - the main sticking point the union's desire to phase in any increases over the length of the agreement.

The owners still responded with a proposal that moved modestly in the direction of the union on Sunday, but Manfred promised that it would be the last such overture if union officials didn't "find a way to correct their directional problems."

One thing is clear, somebody is going to have to make a truly significant move soon to avert the industry's ninth work stoppage since 1972, which is scheduled to begin with Friday's games, but a couple of major obstacles stand in the way of a settlement.

The union has insisted that any luxury tax plan - regardless of the final tax rates and payroll thresholds - must end after the third year of the proposed four-year agreement. The owners seem just as adamant that the tax remain in effect for the life of the contract.

Union officials also want management's proposed steroid testing program to end if the percentage of players testing positive over a two-year period falls below a predetermined level. Management wants the testing plan to remain in effect for the duration of the agreement.

The most divisive issue at the moment is the one that caused all the commotion over the weekend. The players want the increases in revenue sharing phased in gradually. The owners want the transfer amount to remain constant throughout the contract.

Neither side has characterized those obstacles as potential deal breakers, but the either/or nature of each of them figure to make compromise difficult.

Some players thought a faction of hard-line owners still doubted players would go through with their strike.

"I don't know if they think we're bluffing," Los Angeles Dodgers player representative Paul Lo Duca said. "We never have before."

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