New Labor Contract Likely Months Away

United Press International

Relative labor peace has prevailed in professional baseball since the seven-week players' strike of 1981, but winds are stirring as negotiations on a new labor agreement go into their fourth month and a new season begins.

The players and owners of the 26 teams in the National and American Leagues are trying to reach accord on a new labor contract to replace the four-year agreement negotiated in 1980 and extended for a fifth year after the 1981 strike.

Although the extended agreement expired on Dec. 31, 1984, and the two sides have been negotiating since November, relative little headway has been made toward reaching a new agreement.

Many of the issues at stake are complex and may take months to resolve.

Among the issues currently on the bargaining table are free agency, minimum salaries for players, the owers' contributions to the players' pension fund and whether such payments should be linked to television revenues.

When a settlement is reached, the agreement will be retroactive to Jan. 1 and incorporated into the individual contracts which most players have already signed with their clubs.

The basic agreement covers when and where a player plays, the minimum he must be paid, how a player can be traded to another team and when he can demand a trade, how World Series and league championship payments are computed and a host of other issues.

Among the issues being considered in the current round of negotiations are:

Salary arbitration--Any player with two years of major league experience and unable to reach agreement with his club on salary could ask to have an arbiter choose his or the club's figure. In January, 98 players filed for arbitration but most settled with their teams before reaching a hearing. Of the 13 cases which were arbitrated, seven were won by the clubs and six by players. Both sides are seeking to change the arbitration system.

Minimum salary--Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets, the National League's 1984 Rookie of the Year, earned $40,000 last season, the minimum salary allowed by the agreement. By comparison, the average major league salary in 1984 was just short of $330,000. The Players Association has proposed the minimum salary be raised to $70,000.

Maximum salary reduction--Although a player's talents might dwindle over the years, the agreement barred a team from reducing his salary by more than 20 percent of his previous year's pay. The owners reportedly have proposed eliminating the restriction.

Terminating a player--A club can release a player who fails to "exhibit sufficient skill or competitive ability" after offering his contract to other teams. If no one else wanted him, the player was sent home with 30 days pay when the release was made during the off-season or during spring training. If cut during the season, he was entitled to the unpaid balance of his season's salary. The owners want to modify the terms.

Free agency--This issue has generated more heat than any other. For years the reserve clause prohibited players from negotiating to play for other clubs, but in a 1975 case on behalf Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, an arbitration panel ruled there was nothing in a player's contract that automatically bound him to the club for life. Since then the status of free agency has been regulated by the basic labor agreement.

Under the current agreement, when a player accumulates six or more years of major league experience, he can declare free agency at the end of a season. Once he has exercised that right, he is not eligible for free agency again for five years.

The 1981 strike was caused by a disagreement over the free agency procedure. It was settled only when the players agreed to allow a club losing a high-ranking free agent to select a player with professional experience from a compensation pool as payment for that loss.

The current agreement limits the number of free agents a team can sign. The players want that restriction lifted and would like to see the re-entry draft -- where bidding rights to free agents are selected--abolished. The players want to be able to negotiate with the clubs of their choosing.

Pension contributions--The players' pension fund is the subject of another agreement, but the owners' contributions to the fund are part of the current negotiations. The players have asked for one-third of the network television revenues.

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