The National Labor Relations Board said Tuesday it would issue a complaint against major league baseball owners for unfair labor practice, but the expected move is not likely to prompt a quick resolution to a bargaining dispute now in its eighth month.
Fred Feinstein, the NLRB's general counsel, said at a news conference in Washington that he would take another week before deciding whether to seek an injunction to make the owners reinstate the terms and conditions of the old labor agreement with the players.
Union leaders have said that if the NLRB obtains such an injunction, they will recommend to the players that the strike that began on Aug. 12 be terminated.
However, the owners seem certain to wage a possibly prolonged fight with the NLRB in court and to respond to any attempt by the players to return to work under terms of the old agreement with a lockout.
Acting Commissioner Bud Selig said the owners have no desire to play another season under the conditions of the expired agreement.
"This is just another manifestation of the fact that the only rational and practical way to end this dispute is at the table," Selig said.
John Harrington, chief executive officer of the Boston Red Sox and chairman of the owners' negotiating committee, said the owners "vigorously disagree" with the NLRB and "are quite confident that the clubs will prevail if the issues are litigated in federal court."
Negotiations that had been scheduled to resume Tuesday in Florida, were postponed when union and management representatives were summoned to separate meetings with Feinstein and informed of his decision to issue a complaint. Each side indicated a willingness to reschedule the talks as soon as possible, and are expected to try that today.
Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that a settlement could be reached in time to have striking players on the field for the scheduled season opener on April 2.
It also seems unlikely that the NLRB, hesitant to provide either side with leverage and hopeful that the dispute can be settled through negotiation, could obtain an injunction before then. If Feinstein waits a week before asking the NLRB's five-member board for permission to pursue an injunction, the board will require several more days to consider it, and it will probably take a federal judge in New York another week to schedule a hearing and reach a decision that could be appealed by the owners.
In addition, arguments on the merit of the unfair labor charge before an administrative law judge will not begin until May 22, and a decision that also can be appealed to the NLRB board is not likely until late this year or early next year.
Despite that tenuous timetable, the union expressed delight with Tuesday's decision--the formal complaint will be issued today--and pointed out privately that the owners face enormous legal and financial risks, with or without a lockout.
"The risk of damages doesn't depend on a lockout," a source close to the union said.
--If the owners persist in the illegal behavior and do not reinstate the old work rules, they could be exposed to treble damages under the collusion clause of the old agreement and ultimately be forced to pay a fine 10 times larger, perhaps, than their $280-million collusion penalty of several years ago.
--If they reinstate the old rules but order a lockout, they could be liable for back pay, plus interest, from Aug. 12--providing the administrative law judge rules they violated the National Labor Relations Act.
"Obviously, we're pleased with the result," union leader Donald Fehr said after meeting with Feinstein. "Obviously, it was the right thing to do. Sooner or later, people are going to realize that the reason negotiations are not moving forward is because (the owners) are not bargaining in good faith."
Feinstein said the complaint would allege that the owners "did not properly follow the rules of collective bargaining" when they illegally eliminated salary arbitration and violated the anti-collusion clause of the expired agreement by acting in concert against the signing of free agents.
Both violations occurred after the owners had agreed to reinstate the old work rules and withdraw their salary-cap system to avoid NLRB sanctions for declaring an illegal impasse before implementation of the cap on Dec. 23.
"The remedy we will seek will be restoration of these terms until such times as a new agreement is reached or until the parties bargain to a good-faith impasse on those issues," Feinstein said.
The owners tried to put their own spin on the decision by citing in a release that the NLRB recognized the clubs' right to bargain collectively through their Player Relations Committee, a move tantamount to a signing freeze.
Said an American League owner: "The union didn't come close to getting everything it wanted. This is not the way out for Don."