Negotiators report progress in effort to stop baseball strike

Stoppage today if deal eludes owners, players

`Increase in sense of urgency'

Progress reported in baseball talks

August 30, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Negotiators for Major League Baseball's players and owners - faced with today's union-imposed strike deadline - were working early this morning trying to hammer out a new labor agreement.

Owners and the players association were attempting to reach a compromise on the troublesome luxury tax proposal that has been the major obstacle to a settlement.

Union officials contacted player representatives for the 30 major-league clubs by conference call at 11 p.m. to report they were nearing a deal, but they also cautioned that there was still ground to cover overnight to ensure labor peace for another four years.

Given the history of this contentious labor relationship, absent a formal announcement, it would be premature to say the two sides would reach an agreement.

If negotiators for the owners and the players union do not work out the final issues by early this afternoon, 15 games will be canceled beginning with a 3:20 p.m. (Eastern time) series opener between the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, and the troubled national pastime will suffer its ninth work stoppage since 1972.

"Of course, there is an increase in the sense of urgency," said Major League Baseball chief operating officer Robert DuPuy. "No one wants to lose a single game or a single day of games."

The talks slowed to a crawl the past two days over the sticky issue of a heavy luxury tax on the game's highest payrolls. The owners hope to enhance competitive balance between the small- and large-market teams by penalizing big-spending clubs such as the New York Yankees for exceeding specified payroll thresholds.

The bargaining teams have been wrestling over what those thresholds would be, as well as what tax rates would be imposed and how long the plan would be in effect. The owners' most recent reported offer would set the threshold at $112 million for the first three years of a four-year agreement and $120 million in the final year, with a 35 percent tax on any payroll that exceeds that amount. Teams would incur progressively higher tax rates each year above the threshold.

The Major League Baseball Players Association opposed any luxury tax plan at the outset but has attempted to compromise with a less ambitious plan that would start with a threshold of $120 million in the first year, include lower progressive tax rates and end after the third year of the labor contract. Ownership's insistence that the luxury tax extend through the life of the four-year agreement has been one of the major stumbling blocks during the past two days of bargaining.

Bogged down

Management negotiators seemed optimistic Wednesday that the core issues could be resolved before the union's strike deadline, but the talks appeared to bog down late Wednesday night.

The union remains concerned that a heavy luxury tax, combined with big increases in local revenue sharing, might drastically suppress player salaries. Ownership has denied it is seeking a de facto salary cap, but clearly hopes to stem years of payroll inflation that have pushed the average major league salary to nearly $2.4 million per year.

Even if the ownership bargaining committee - which includes DuPuy, chief negotiator Rob Manfred, Chicago Cubs president Andy MacPhail and Orioles owner Peter Angelos - settled on the most recent union proposal, the new agreement would include more concessions from the players than any other labor contract since the advent of the free-agent era in the 1970s. But management negotiators feel they need to do even more to enhance competitive balance and deal with the severe economic problems facing some low-revenue clubs.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig arrived in Manhattan on Wednesday to join the talks but has left most of the face-to-face negotiations to his bargaining committee and did not leave the Major League Baseball offices during the course of his second day on site yesterday.

The bargaining teams met in small groups for several days, but the entire union bargaining entourage arrived at the MLB offices on Park Avenue at about 9:30 last night to press for a settlement. Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine and outfielder B.J. Surhoff, both longtime union activists, were taking part in the final round of negotiations along with MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr and union attorneys Steve Fehr, Gene Orza, Michael Weiner and Robert Lenaghan.

Though the luxury tax has emerged as the most troublesome issue, negotiators also worked yesterday to resolve differences over ownership's desire to fold two teams.

Awaiting arbitrator

The players and owners are awaiting the outcome of an arbitration case over the plan to downsize the major leagues from 30 to 28 teams, but the arbitrator has postponed his decision several times to avoid influencing the collective bargaining talks. There was some speculation last night that the owners might attempt to use elements of the contraction plan as bargaining chips to gain further concessions from the union on the luxury tax and revenue sharing.

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