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Baseball Tries It Again : Labor: Sides to meet Wednesday, facing Feb. 6 deadline set by President Clinton and wary of an imposed settlement.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although there has been no change in their basic positions and no indication they can resolve their differences on the key economic issue of cost control since they last met Dec. 22, baseball’s owners and players will find the environment has changed significantly when they resume talks Wednesday.

Faced with resumption of the strike when spring training camps open in less than three weeks, the sides must also face perhaps their most significant deadline yet.

President Clinton has instructed special mediator William J. Usery to consider making his own recommendation for a settlement if there is no progress by Feb. 6.

If Usery takes that step, and the sides reject his recommendation, Clinton could ask Congress for special legislation that would impose a settlement of the six-month dispute. It took Congress about 24 hours to respond to a 1992 request from President George Bush to end a nationwide railroad strike.

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“It’s not like Congress is amending a statute,” management lawyer Chuck O’Connor said. “They’re merely applying a special piece of legislation for a limited time.”

Technically, the White House requires a national emergency to ask for special legislation, but it is presumed that the baseball dispute could be portrayed as a regional economic emergency, initially affecting spring training in Arizona and Florida before spreading nationally if the strike extends into the season.

A baseball task force from last week’s U.S. Conference of Mayors met with union leader Donald Fehr and management representatives before meeting with Clinton, who said: “I know how important this is to you. I sometimes think that the full economic implications of this whole thing have not been evaluated--not just for the cities that have major league teams, but also for the cities that host spring training. This is a big deal, and we’re working on it.”

Said O’Connor: “Both sides have to feel a sense of urgency. I mean, (Colorado Rockies owner) Jerry McMorris had it right when he said that if we don’t write our own agreement, someone else will do it for us, and that’s never as good.

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“If we don’t write our own agreement, we’re going to get plenty of help from the mediator and Congress.”

The White House deadline and the threat of a possible Usery-recommended settlement might represent an opportunity for intransigent owners and players to save face, but Clinton has put some of his own face on the line.

If he can’t prod Bud Selig and Donald Fehr into an agreement, how does he expect to deal with Newt Gingrich?

If he can’t get bipartisan support on this, how does he get it on more critical issues?

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Said a management lawyer: “I think the votes are there. I think he knows he has support on the Hill or he wouldn’t have gone this far and the Senate majority leader (Bob Dole, R-Kan.) wouldn’t have similarly addressed the situation right after Clinton made his statement.

“You’ve had union and management people on the Hill for a month lobbying over the antitrust issue, and I think there was a collective sigh of relief in Congress when Clinton went this route.

“I mean, there’s a sufficient number of Congressmen who will see it as a way to get rid of baseball and get on with their lives. Clinton is lifting it off their shoulders.”

The union has been hammering at baseball’s antitrust exemption, contending that repeal would help end the industry’s long history of labor interruptions by enabling any dispute to be resolved in court while play continued. It would apply antitrust laws to an unregulated monopoly, the union argues, and prevent implementation of a salary cap or similar trade restraint.

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Management, however, cites favorable court rulings in NFL and NBA cases and the existing caps in those two leagues, both of which are subject to antitrust laws, and says that removal of the exemption would have no impact on current or future labor negotiations.

“There are labor laws in place to protect the union, and we have the world’s best mediator willing to keep working toward an agreement,” O’Connor said.

“We have needed to get back to the table, but I believe the antitrust issue has become a distraction in the form of a Holy Grail to the union and has interfered with the union’s desire to reach an agreement. Don has been determined to wage the battle on Capitol Hill.”

Said Fehr: “I haven’t been alone (on the Hill). If the exemption has no impact on labor negotiations, why are they battling so hard to keep it?”

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The Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on monopolies and labor practices will hold a hearing on the exemption Feb. 15. Several bills have been introduced that would remove the exemption. Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) has also introduced a bill that would order binding arbitration if there is no agreement in time for the season.

And Rep. John LaFalce (D.-N.Y.) introduced a bill Monday that would establish a seven-member national commission appointed by the President with the power to settle labor disputes and regulate the sport.

Most observers say it is unlikely Congress could act on antitrust legislation before mid-March, meaning that while antitrust remains part of the landscape as an issue both sides must consider as they resume negotiations, the White House deadline is the more immediate concern.

Similarly, the National Labor Relations Board is not expected to rule until mid-February on the charges filed by both owners and players accusing the other of failing to negotiate in good faith since the strike began on Aug. 12. If the board rules against the owners, it can ultimately pursue an injunction on behalf of the players, putting the salary cap and new economic system on hold while the dispute goes to court.

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It has been speculated that the striking players would return to the field if they got an injunction, but that also is more than a month or two down the road.

“As Bud (Selig) has said many times, this has to be resolved at the table and not in Congress or the courts,” O’Connor said, adding he has been briefing owners on the legitimate impact of the President’s role, which he views as “a lot more than merely words from a bully pulpit.”

“He has taken a stick to both sides,” O’Connor said. “Given the egos on both sides, it was going to take a push (to restart negotiations). I hope everyone has had a belly full and is ready to be serious. I would think that brother Fehr is stretched to the limit. He told the players it would be a short strike and the owners would give in. He told them that the strike would prevent implementation and there would be no change in the system. He hasn’t been right on any of that.”

Fehr denied telling the players any of that and said O’Connor has been using scare tactics.

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“If we had thought it was going to be a short strike, we wouldn’t have spent four years preparing a strike fund,” he said.

“We have said from the start that the owners intended to implement (the salary cap) and were out to break the union.”

Rhetoric aside, the union doesn’t demean Clinton’s involvement, but questions whether it will move the owners off the salary cap or a payroll tax that would also serve to depress salaries--the consistent impediment to a settlement.

“Costs and salary cap to the owners are synonymous,” union lawyer Eugene Orza said. “What they mean (when they talk about cost controls) is that the words ‘salary cap’ should have four or five synonyms in the thesaurus. Their position hasn’t changed in two years, and I don’t expect it to change now.

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“There are some clubs that will respond to this as if the President of the United States is Joe Schlepp.”

The union staff will meet with its executive board in Washington today to decide if it is prepared to go further with the dual payroll tax the owners rejected Dec. 22, when they then declared an impasse and implemented the salary cap. The union proposal would have applied taxes of 10% and 25% at two different payroll levels, but owners said the levels were too high to have an impact on salary growth. The 25% tax would not have affected any 1994 payroll, and the 10% tax would have affected only three, adding only $600,000 to the revenue sharing pool.

“The union has been resolutely unwilling to address the game’s economic problems,” Atlanta Brave President Stan Kasten said. “If that doesn’t change, nothing is likely to happen this week.”

The players, O’Connor agreed, must discuss costs, but the owners, meantime, will offer a “new and different approach.”

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Sources close to the situation believe management might be ready to give some on rates and cost control, figuring a compromise is better than having the courts or Congress possibly wipe out the entire concept.

Is there room for compromise?

A recent study by the Congressional Research Service, an arm of the Library of Congress, disclosed that the players would have received only 44% of total revenues if the current salary cap system had been in place in 1994, projecting a full season. That compares to 58% under the old system, leaving considerable room for a compromise in the low 50s, if the sides are serious.

If Feb. 6 arrives without progress, the scenario isn’t clear. But O’Connor suspects Usery would take a few days to generate a recommendation that he would submit to owners and players, bringing public and media pressure for acceptance while Clinton summons Selig to Washington to remind him “of all the good things the government has done for baseball and all the bad things the government might do to baseball” if the recommendation doesn’t produce a settlement.

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“If either or both sides snubbed their nose at his recommendation, they would run the risk of alienating the public, let alone Congress,” O’Connor said. “We depend on the public.”

And in this case, the public might have to depend on Congress.


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