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STRIKE 85? : THE MEDIATOR : Moffett Tells How He Worked to Settle the Walkout of ‘81

Times Staff Writer

It was somewhere near the end of the 1981 major league baseball strike that Ken Moffett figured the news media was getting in the way.

“There was so much media everywhere, I had to call for a news blackout,” he recalled.

Moffett was the representative from the National Labor Relations Board who mediated that strike.

“We were at a stage in the talks where we needed a change in venue (from New York),” Moffett said. “We weren’t getting anywhere. We were meeting all morning, break for lunch, go before the cameras, go back, break, go before the cameras. I decided to move the negotiations to Washington D.C.

“We just had to get away from the media. There was hardly a bargaining session that took place where we didn’t go before cameras. It was like a Chinese fire drill. It was a bad scene all around.

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“So we moved the whole thing there. The press moved with us. I remember one time I called a secret meeting at another building. A Washington sportswriter found out where it was. We came out of the secret meeting to find ourselves in the middle of the press corps.”

The cat-and-mouse game with reporters, though, was the least of Moffett’s problems during the 1981 strike. Here was the man who had mediated an air-traffic controllers’ strike, which was not one of the more polite disagreements in labor history. But the 50-day player strike had an atmosphere that Moffett described as having “a great deal of animosity.”

But then, Moffett was used to arguments. He went from the NLRB to become the deputy director of the Federal Meditation and Conciliation Service, and then, in an ironic twist, the executive director of the Major League Players Assn.

Moffett is now the assistant to the president of another union, the National Assn. of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians. He’s also back in negotiations, only this time it’s OK for him to take sides.

“Basically, a mediator is a disinterested (neutral) third party,” Moffett said. “In 1981, I was called in by the owners. My job was to schedule meetings and set out the issues. After things got started, I set out a a series of regular sessions. We would meet jointly, we’d meet separately and I’d make suggestions.

“We started the negotiations in Washington, mainly because of logistics, because I was based there. But because the owners’ and players’ offices were in New York, it became easier for me to fly up there than it was for them to come down to Washington.”

Even the most casual reader of sports sections has read about strikes, arbitration and labor negotiations. But few would be able to describe what the process really is. What really happens behind those closed doors?

Not much, according to Moffett. The actual scheduled meetings are pretty tame. It’s the secret whispering that moves the parties closer.

“No one really raises their voices,” Moffett said. “A lot of it is done on paper. I make suggestions or I will write out formal recommendations. so, you have the actual meetings themselves, and you have the meetings outside the meetings.

“Owners would call me privately. Representatives of players would call me in my room, in the restaurant, wherever. And agents--they play a really big role. They are probably in a lot closer contact with the owners than the players’ association itself. Agents speak freely with owners all the time. That includes during the strike.”

If only the owners would speak so freely with the players. Sometimes, owners won’t even talk to other owners. If that is the case, Moffett says, the trouble starts.

“Personalities are what baseball is about,” he said. “I would say that being able to read and deal with different types of personalities is a big component of the negotiating. In baseball, you have 26 owners or 26 corporations. Along with that, you have all these different personalities. Strong personalities. So you can imagine how decisions are made when you have 26 entrepreneurs all trying to say which way it goes.

“The another tough aspect of the 1981 strike--and it’s a real detriment to any negotiations--the parties genuinely didn’t care for each other. There was a lot of animosity. Both sides were very vitriolic toward one another. As a matter of fact, I brought the secretary of labor in on the fourth day, to show them (owners and players) I was serious. It showed them that the secretary of labor and the President were interested in ending the strike.”

Even if that ploy didn’t quite convince the arguing sides that President Reagan kept the hotline open for baseball arbitration updates, it at least gave Moffett some leverage, an important point. In the midst of some sticky point of order, either of the two sides could say to Moffett, “So, Ken, who asked you?” It is often thankless to be the host of Baseball Family Feud. It is also tense.

“I have to run to keep in shape and relax during negotiations,” Moffett said. “I ran many miles through Central Park during that strike. Arbitration is a physically demanding thing. You have to do that (stay in shape) in this business, or else you’ll burn yourself out. I’d like to think I’ll be that last person to get tired in the session.”

Fifty days in a hotel would tax anyone. Moffett said an arbitrator has to learn to work through fatigue and frustration, but there was one point where he might have taken the hint.

“I used to go running with one of the attorneys involved in the negotiations,” Moffett said. “One day, when the talks were in Washington, we took the lunch break and went on a 10-mile run. We came back to the meeting site in our running clothes--there was a shower on the same floor.

“Well, as my luck was going, we got in the elevator and it just stopped. Stuck between floors. We only had so much time before the talks were going to resume for the afternoon, and we were sitting in that elevator with no phone in it for 45 minutes.

“We got rescued with little time to spare before the session started. Same old thing.”


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