ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Baseball owners decisively rejected a proposed labor agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association yesterday, once again putting the future of a troubled sport in doubt.
The owners voted 18-12 against the tentative deal hammered out by management negotiator Randy Levine and union officials, then voted unanimously to approve a revised deal that calls for further concessions from the players -- a deal the union seems certain to reject.
"As a result of today's meeting, the clubs have voted unanimously to allow the Executive Council to finalize an agreement with certain modifications and clarifications without going back to the owners," said interim commissioner Bud Selig. "While we could not accept the proposed agreement as it was presented, there was vast agreement on the majority of issues.
"We look forward expeditiously to getting together with the union to get an agreement that will bring long-term labor peace."
That optimism may not be shared by the players, who felt that a deal had been struck during the World Series. If they are not willing to make further concessions, the negotiations could break down again, putting an end to plans for interleague play in 1997 and possibly setting the stage for another work stoppage.
The original deal called for a luxury tax on excess payroll,
higher minimum salaries, three-man arbitration panels and agreements on revenue-sharing, interleague play and expansion. The basic framework was negotiated during a flurry of collective bargaining in August and revised during a series of meetings during the World Series.
Levine appeared close to having the votes to ratify it two weeks ago, but a group of hard-liners pulled together enough opposition to assure that it would not get the necessary 23 votes for approval. The owners voted to let the two expansion teams participate, which raised the 75 percent ratification requirement from 21 to 23 teams.
"Obviously, I'm disappointed," said Levine, who told owners yesterday that he had gotten the best deal he could get. "Baseball needs a labor agreement. That's the whole intention. It would be a tragedy if there is no agreement. The positive thing is that people still are trying to work it out."
The union reaction was predictable. Executive director Donald Fehr, who was in London to make a speech, blasted the owners for reneging on the deal in a prepared statement released from MLBPA headquarters in New York.
"The owners' refusal today to ratify the new collective bargaining agreement struck on Oct. 24 with the owners' appointed negotiators is extremely unfortunate," the statement read. "The bargain we struck, which is complicated and carefully balanced, presented us with an historic opportunity to put years of division aside and to move forward together for the first time."
Ownership sources confirmed last night that management is looking for two major concessions. The owners want the players to drop a provision that gives the union the option of a tax-free sixth year and also want to eliminate any restriction on the number of teams that could be subject to an excess payroll tax during the next three seasons.
The original deal called for a 35 percent tax on excess payroll and benefits over $51 million per team next year and $55 million in 1998, and a 34 percent tax on payroll in excess of $58.9 million in 1999, but only the top five teams would be subject to the levy in the final two years of the tax. The owners, hoping to put a greater drag on salary growth, want every team over the tax thresholds to pay the tax.
That might not appear to be enough to cause the union to reject the deal, but union officials already have said that they will not make any significant changes in the structure of the deal, and have hinted that they are willing to continue operating under the terms of the old Basic Agreement for another year.
"We're not starting from ground zero here," said Selig.
There are indications, however, that the owners want to do just that. Union officials expected the owners to throw the agreement back to them in an attempt to focus public outrage in the direction of the players if there is a resumption of open hostilities.
"The fact that the owners have repudiated their own negotiator makes the future quite uncertain," Fehr said. "The players were willing to live with an agreement they did not like because they understand that compromise is the essence of collective bargaining and because the overall agreement is the first step in providing the long-term stability needed to rebuild this industry."
Instead the owners voted to allow the 10-man Executive Council to attempt to complete the negotiations -- within narrow parameters -- and approve the final deal by a simple majority. If they want interleague play next season, that will have to happen by Nov. 15.
Levine had left hints that he would resign rather than attempt to renegotiate the deal, but he said he would not make any decision until he had been fully briefed by Selig today.
"It's in the best interests of everybody to reach a labor agreement," Reinsdorf said as he entered the meeting yesterday, "but I don't think it is in the interests of the fans, owners or players to reach an agreement that doesn't address the problems of baseball."
He came out looking again like the industry's top power-broker. The deal went down even harder than anyone expected, leaving Selig and Reinsdorf to defend another delay in the long-running dispute.
"I hope the fans understand that what we are doing is meant to be to their benefit," Reinsdorf said. "We're attempting to control the spiraling of salaries."
Though the final vote on the original deal was surprisingly lopsided, the vote apparently was closer before Selig and others lobbied for a greater consensus. Enough that there might have been enough votes to ratify the deal if not for the required 75 percent majority.
"You can say that you'll lose $1 billion if you make this deal," Arizona Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo said before the meeting, "but if you could lose $2 billion if you don't then there are two ways to look at it. If you look at chaos today and chaos five years from now, I would vote for chaos five years from now because you've got four years to develop a relationship to avoid it."
Pub Date: 11/07/96