WASHINGTON — With union solidarity crumbling, Executive Director Gene Upshaw of the NFL Players Assn. said Wednesday night an interim agreement to end the 23-day walkout was near, but one major issue remained unresolved.
Upshaw sought to reach a back-to-work agreement with the owners' chief negotiator, Executive Director Jack Donlan of the NFL Management Council, and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle by telephone throughout a day in which 89 more players defected.
The union expected its support to erode further in the next 24 hours. Upshaw said the entire Washington Redskins team--the only club that had remained solidly behind the union--will return to work today.
Upshaw said the owners prevented a back-to-work order by demanding the expired 1982 collective bargaining agreement be extended to June 1988. He said the extension was a ploy since it has the effect of extending the old agreement two years.
"The players in the National Football League are still on strike," Upshaw said. "Until we can reach an agreement on the terms under which we will come back to work, we will remain on strike."
Upshaw said he would continue to press for a settlement that would allow players to return while the outstanding issues in the proposed collective bargaining agreement were resolved.
"I'll continue through the night and through (today) to try to work out those terms, (but) until and unless we are satisfied it's a fair agreement, we will not return," Upshaw said.
Upshaw said the union wants an extension of the 1982 pact until Feb. 1, 1988, but that management wants it extended until June 16, 1988.
He said that extension actually amounts to two years because any NFL collective bargaining agreement in effect after Feb. 1 of any year remains in effect for the full upcoming season.
He said management's proposal, for all practical purposes, would extend the contract to Feb. 1, 1989.
"We really just have a hangup with that Feb. 1 date," Upshaw said. "The players want to go back to work. We think it's important for the integrity of the game. We feel we have to do what is necessary to get the players back to work and save the season."
Dennis Curran, director of operations for the Management Council, said: "The June deadline would give us more time to reach an agreement, and we feel it would be necessary to extend the '82 CBA (collective bargaining agreement) at least to that date to give us sufficient time and to give us protection for our system."
Upshaw said the sides have agreed on several parts of a back-to-work proposal. But the union has not yet agreed to the owners' demand for mediation on the outstanding issues of the strike, notably free agency, pensions, drug testing and guaranteed contracts.
He also said the sides reached "a middle ground" on roster and salary guarantees for returning striking players. Upshaw would not specify the nature of the compromise. The union had asked management to guarantee salaries for the remainder of the year, while management had agreed to a two-game guarantee.
The sides Tuesday agreed to several other back-to-work provisions, including no reprisal by either side against players for their actions during the strike and protection of union player representatives.
Keith Fahnhorst, player representative for the San Francisco 49ers, said player representatives from the 28 clubs will hold a conference call with Upshaw today to discuss further strategy.
The 89 players who reported by the 1 p.m. deadline Wednesday will be eligible to play this weekend, regardless of strike developments. They increased the total of those who have defied the union to 228, or 14% of the 1,585-player union.
"Even if a couple of teams, seven teams, go in, we'll still be out on strike," Upshaw said. "I'm sure that they (the Redskins) are going back. But there is no way all of the players in the National Football League will return tomorrow."
New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, voted the NFL's MVP last season, headed Wednesday's returning group.
Taylor said he was tired of seeing the Super Bowl champion Giants (0-4) lose with what appears to be one of the league's worst replacement teams. He, rookie safety Adrian White and backup quarterbacks Jeff Rutledge and Jeff Hostetler became the first Giants to cross the picket line.
"I felt the reason I had to come back, and I wanted to come back, was I didn't want to sit back and watch the Giants lose, and lose a lot of money," said Taylor, who lost $160,000 in the three weeks he was on strike.
"It's one thing to watch the team lose, but to get destroyed is something different. We need to get some players in here because by the time this thing is over we could be 0-6 or 0-7, and then when we come back there is no reason to play ball in the first place."
Eleven Raiders returned to give them a league-high 26 defectors. Only one team, the Redskins, has had no union defectors since the strike began.
Quarterback Jeff Kemp returned to the Seattle Seahawks. His father, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), a 1988 Republican presidential candidate and former Buffalo Bills quarterback, helped organize the first American Football League players' union in 1965 and served as its president.
Also reporting to their teams, among others, were John Stallworth and Donnie Shell of Pittsburgh, Steve Largent of Seattle, Kevin Ross of Kansas City and Ozzie Newsome of Cleveland.
The defections came a day after club owners rejected the union's proposal of arbitration as a way to settle the contract dispute.