Baseball's long-running labor feud went underground for a while, but the acrimony that both sides have tried hard the past two years to repress seems ready to bubble forth again.
On Wednesday, the owners rejected the proposed collective bargaining agreement that had been hammered out by management negotiator Randy Levine and union officials. The owners' apparent repudiation of Levine and their attempt to rewrite an agreement that the Major League Baseball Players Association considered a done deal is expected to push the 4-year-old dispute into a new era of mistrust and labor unrest.
Union chief Donald Fehr released a prepared statement after the vote that was sharply critical of the ownership strategy, but he chose not to make any further comment after returning yesterday from a speaking engagement in London.
Several sources close to the union side, however, said that there would be no renegotiation. The owners apparently have until midnight Thursday to change course and approve the deal that Levine and Fehr negotiated, or the whole thing begins to unravel.
No interleague play. No enhanced revenue sharing. And, worst of all, no labor peace in the foreseeable future.
It was clear after Wednesday's meeting in Chicago that the owners were willing to risk all that. Acting commissioner Selig and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf were able to marshal strong support for the notion that no deal is better than a long-term agreement that doesn't accomplish the goals they set forth when the owners reopened collective bargaining and vowed to achieve "cost control" back on Dec. 7, 1992.
None of that support came from Baltimore. The Orioles, according to a high-ranking club official, were among the 12 clubs that voted for labor peace, but owner Peter Angelos did endorse the secondary effort to persuade the union to make further concessions.
The luxury tax on excessive payrolls would put some drag on salaries, but the hard-line owners feel it would be too subtle and they want the concept institutionalized. The tax would expire after three years under the Levine/Fehr proposal and disappear for the next two years, leaving the owners to try and reinstitute it when the contract expires.
There also are limitations on the number of teams subject to taxation, another thing that the owners are going to try to eliminate if negotiations ever resume.
Levine apparently felt that he was working with the blessing of Fehr and Major League Baseball's ruling Executive Council, but it became apparent during the days leading up to Wednesday's meeting that the most influential owners -- including Selig -- were trying to distance themselves from the agreement. They even hinted that he had overstepped his authority, though he supposedly was working under the close supervision of Selig.
"When I was hired, I was hired to get an agreement with the players," Levine said yesterday. "The owners told me that they did not want a confrontation. Working under a status quo injunction, that didn't leave us a lot of leverage, but we still managed to achieve an agreement. I'm very proud of that agreement, but the owners have a right to reject it and there are consequences to their actions. I hope for the sake of baseball fans that the best comes of it."
Though Levine has indicated that he will not take part in any attempt to renegotiate the deal, he apparently will stay on as management's chief negotiator until next week's deadline for ratifying the deal, then submit his resignation.
If nothing changes in the next week, the owners likely will try to go back to square one and work toward the implementation of new work rules, which could take years. They already tried once to declare an impasse and impose a salary cap, but withdrew their impasse declaration under pressure from the National Labor Relations Board.
No doubt, if they attempt to implement again, the union will cite this latest episode as another example of bad faith bargaining and mount another legal challenge.
The owners did their best to put up a unified front as they left Chicago, but there is some question whether the split decision at Wednesday's meeting was a sign of deepening division inside ownership ranks.
There even has been speculation that it might have been the beginning of the end of Selig's reign as acting commissioner, though none of his fellow owners publicly supports his removal. It was clear by the end of the meeting that he -- and presumably Reinsdorf -- had left Levine to twist in the wind and set events in motion that could push the dispute back into the courts and even cause it to spill back onto the field.
Here are the areas in the proposed Basic Agreement that owners hope to modify before the deadline for interleague play and free-agent filing passes at midnight on Thursday:
Luxury tax: The Donald Fehr/Randy Levine deal called for a luxury tax plan that covered the next three years, with no luxury tax in 2000 and a union option for another season without taxation. The owners want to eliminate the option year.
Tax limitations: The taxation plan limits the number of teams subject to an excess payroll tax at five per year. The owners want that limitation removed so that any team exceeding the payroll and benefit threshold ($51 million next year) would be subject to the tax.
Service time: The deal calls for players to be given service credit for time lost during the 1994-95 players strike. The owners have been against that from the start and still hope to restrict the amount of service time restored.
Other issues: The owners reportedly have concerns about the wording of a clause regarding union litigation that arose from the strike, though the union had agreed to drop all strike-related litigation in the proposed deal. The agreement also called for the owners to join the union in calling for an end to baseball's anti-trust exemption as it relates to labor issues, something the owners apparently have had second thoughts about.
Pub Date: 11/08/96