Major League Baseball and the new World Umpires Association have reached a tentative contract agreement that will assure labor peace between the industry and its umpires through the 2004 season.
Negotiations concluded yesterday in New York with a deal that improves wages and upgrades the umpires' pension plan while creating a new framework for performance evaluation and disciplinary action. It was long in coming - the old labor agreement expired last Dec. 31. But union chief John Hirschbeck said it was worth the wait.
"I'm thrilled, so happy that this is over and we were able to work with baseball to get a good contract and a fair contract for both sides," Hirschbeck said yesterday. "It was great to keep our promise to our members."
The agreement does not impact the 22 umpires displaced in the disastrous mass resignation scheme ordered by former union chief Richie Phillips last summer. The new union, which fought a lengthy battle to overthrow Phillips' Major League Umpires Association, brokered a deal that would have restored the jobs of 10 umpires and gained compensation or early retirement for the rest, but the old union rejected the proposal and continues to fight an arbitration battle to get all 22 umpires rehired.
"That's the only thing that casts a pall over this," said Baltimore labor attorney Larry Gibson, who along with fellow Baltimore attorneys Joel Smith and Ron Shapiro helped direct the formation of the new union and steer it through its first set of collective bargaining negotiations. "This contains no accommodation for the other 22. We spent about 50 percent of our negotiating time on that issue, but they rejected the deal. They re-engaged [in negotiations] and got an offer slightly different from what we had, but they rejected that, too. They decided to take their chances with arbitration."
It was the ill-fated resignation ploy, announced by Phillips on July 12, 1999, that would re-energize an ongoing effort by Hirschbeck, Joe Brinkman and other high-profile umpires to form a new - and, by some accounts, more democratic - union.
Phillips badly overestimated his leverage when he tried to force ownership to the bargaining table by convincing most of the MLUA membership to submit letters of resignation. When baseball began accepting those resignations the old union began to disintegrate.
Still, Phillips stubbornly holdsout hope that an arbitrator will side with him and rule that baseball acted in bad faith by accepting the resignations. It may be a tough sell, because the old union used the resignation ploy to sidestep a no-strike provision in the previous collective bargaining agreement. A decision is months away.
Meanwhile, the new union made good on its promise to be less confrontational than the MLUA, refraining from any public displays of disaffection and negotiating patiently toward a satisfactory settlement. The tentative agreement still has to be ratified by the members of the new union, but that is considered a formality.
"This was the ultimate win-win outcome for the umpires and Major League Baseball," said Shapiro. "Several things were demonstrated during this process. One, no matter how conciliatory the relationship, it's still hard to get an agreement. And two, it was possible to build a good relationship and get an agreement that will create a positive situation for the next five years."
The union did not release a lot of specifics, but both sides were able to reach agreement on the sticky "free speech" issue that arose when management attempted to gain more control over umpires' ability to talk to the media. The contract also calls for the formation of a bipartisan committee to create criteria for umpire training and evaluation and lays out specific language for the disposition of disciplinary matters.
The old contract laid out only general guidelines for disciplinary action, which allowed Phillips to turn every dispute into an arbitration case and an opportunity to grandstand for the media. The new contract calls for a "just cause" standard for most disciplinary situations and an independent fact-finder to participate in disputed cases.
"This agreement protects the integrity and the independent judgment of the umpires," Gibson said. "I think that it's the best contract for professional sports officials in history."
The settlement came just days after the Major League Baseball Players Association exercised an option to extend the current labor agreement between the players and owners through the 2001 season, so the sport is guaranteed labor peace with all of its uniformed employees at least until Dec. 31 of next year.