WASHINGTON -- Under threat of sanctions by the National Labor Relations Board, Major League Baseball owners last night lifted the salary cap that they imposed six weeks ago.
The action, which becomes effective on Monday, removes a serious obstacle to the successful conclusion of the collective bargaining negotiations, but it does not end the strike or guarantee that the 1995 season will start on time.
Pressure has been mounting on both sides to make meaningful progress in this latest set of collective bargaining talks. President Clinton set a Monday deadline for some kind of movement, and the decision to remove the implemented settlement and continue negotiations may be enough to prevent drastic government action.
NLRB general counsel Fred Feinstein summoned the owners to a meeting yesterday and informed them that the board would seek a bad-faith bargaining complaint against them and an injunction to lift the cap if they did not lift it voluntarily. Later in the day, the owners sent a letter back to the NLRB advising the board that the implementation had been revoked.
As a result, the union's bad-faith bargaining complaint against .. the owners was dropped, as was a competing charge that the owners had brought against the players.
"We believe it is in the best interests of baseball to remove the obstacle to reaching a negotiated settlement," said ownership negotiator John Harrington. "This removes that obstacle and keeps it from being a distraction. In our mind, it is a positive thing that may help get this resolved."
Presumably, the Major League Baseball Players Association will respond by lifting the six-week embargo on contract signings and clear the way for major-league front offices to get back to building major-league rosters.
If a settlement is not reached by the time the implementation officially is lifted on Monday, 38 restricted free agents and a number of other previously arbitration-eligible players will revert to their previous status. Ownership counsel Chuck O'Connor said that the owners hope to have an agreement before then, which will determine the status of those players, but yesterday's action probably will make Orioles Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald and Chris Hoiles eligible for salary arbitration.
However, the decision to lift the cap doesn't necessarily mean that the owners are about to fold. They obviously recognized the possibility that they could suffer serious financial damage if their December impasse declaration didn't pass muster with the NLRB, but they did not give up their right to negotiate for a new economic system.
"It is still the clubs' desire and objective to negotiate for new conditions of employment for 1995," O'Connor said. "All we have done is change the system that is in place for now."
If this appears to be a clear victory for the union, it's possible that the decision could put pressure on the players to bargain more seriously, since union director Donald Fehr no longer holds the trump card of NLRB intervention. The union's crusade to get the antitrust exemption lifted also figures to lose steam.
"Obviously, we're pleased with the result," Fehr said. "We feel it is appropriate. We felt the impasse was not legally imposed. That's why we filed the charge in the first place."
The owners apparently have not given up their right to declare an impasse again if no progress can be made. They also have not given up their right to lock the players out if the union decides to send them back to work; but, ownership would not have the option of using replacement players in a lockout.
The Clinton administration is expected to keep the heat on both parties to make progress toward a settlement. The Monday deadline for significant progress has not been lifted.
No one admitted to any direct influence from the White House in the accelerated NLRB action, but no one denied it either. The board had scheduled arguments in the competing complaints for next week, but obviously was encouraged to act more quickly.
"I think the president has indicated a strong desire to see the parties reach an agreement," said NLRB spokesman Dave Parker. "The general counsel is hopeful that this will lead to a settlement. Mr. Feinstein is well aware of the president's desire for a settlement."
Clinton made his wishes clear again yesterday.
bTC "The president this weekend will take a 40-ounce Louisville Slugger to both parties and tell them to get a settlement by Monday," White House spokesman Mike McCurry said during a press briefing yesterday. "That's what we would like to see happen."
But, congressional action would be required to impose a settlement. Nevertheless, Clinton is pressing special mediator William J. Usery to mediate an end to the dispute by Monday or put together a settlement to recommend to the administration.
"I've made recommendations before, but certainly not like the situation we're in here now," Usery said. "Look, everybody needs a settlement -- the players, the owners, the fans, everybody. I expect to be here over the weekend. Long hours, too."
The union spent at least part of yesterday preparing a counteroffer to the comprehensive proposal that was presented by the owners on Wednesday -- the first time the owners did not include a salary cap. The counteroffer is expected to be presented today.
General managers Sandy Alderson and Dave Dombrowski, both members of baseball's operations committee, arrived in Washington yesterday to join the negotiations. So did longtime ownership attorney John Westhoff, who would be involved in drafting any final agreement. But the union contingent got smaller, as some players left town to avoid the bad weather.
In a related development, the union canceled Monday's meeting with managers, coaches and trainers in Dallas. Usery requested that the meeting be canceled so that the negotiations would not be interrupted.