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Baseball: Former labor secretary has a reputation for getting results in difficult situations.


WASHINGTON — Negotiators for major league baseball players and owners said Friday that they welcomed the help of former Labor Secretary William J. Usery as a mediator in the bitter bargaining dispute, though neither side expressed confidence in a swift settlement.

The appointment of Usery, former head of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and a labor secretary in the Ford Administration, was announced at the White House by Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich. The selection marks the most significant effort to date by President Clinton to help settle the bitter strike, which began Aug. 12 and has wiped out the 1994 playoffs and World Series.

"This is no easy undertaking, but Bill Usery is no ordinary man," Reich said. "Bill Usery is truly the Mr. October of labor negotiations. . . . Baseball fans across the country want these two sides to reach an agreement. And with the addition of Secretary Usery, we've got a process in place to help make that happen. The rest is up to the players and the owners."

Negotiations are expected to resume Tuesday in New York, but there was no display of optimism. Acting baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said the sides are willing to join Usery at the table, but he made it clear that the owners and players have hardly moved from their bargaining positions of two months ago.

"We have had some discussions, but they've been very informal and I think that, relative to where we are now as opposed to where we were two months ago, it's safe to say that we're generally in the same areas," said Selig, who answered reporters' questions at the White House with Usery, Reich and baseball union chief Donald Fehr. "That's the very reason we need to come back in an organized and a structured way and resume conversations."

Said Fehr: "The negotiations need to resume, and we've been working toward that end. . . . I think it's safe to say we can use all the constructive help we can get."

He added, however, that Usery will need time to familiarize himself with the issues, and Usery agreed.

"It is a dispute that can't be resolved easily, nor quickly," Usery said. "In fact, what little bit that I do know about the things in the dispute, it will take considerable time and considerable effort."

Two months into the dispute, negotiations between the players and owners remain at an impasse over the owners' demand for a salary cap, the divisive issue that is now at the heart of labor disputes throughout professional sports. The baseball players' union believes the owners eventually plan to implement the cap unilaterally.

A proposed curb on player salaries has also led to a management lockout in the NHL that has delayed the start of the season, and players in the NBA are pressing for removal of their league's salary cap. A new cap in the NFL has prompted turmoil and sparked deep resentment among players.

Reich noted that Usery was brought in only after the failure of earlier efforts at federal mediation. Reich added that the Administration turned to Usery after John Calhoun Wells, the current national director of the mediation service, contacted Reich and suggested that "the time was right to appoint a special mediator." Officials of the mediation service, led by Wells, joined the talks the day after the strike began but were unable to move the sides toward a settlement.

Usery may be tailor-made for the job of stepping in where others have failed. He is known for displaying a stubborn persistence and a willingness to endure marathon bargaining sessions--sometimes lasting as long as 44 hours--to close a deal.

In the early 1980s, he helped negotiate the first labor agreement between the United Auto Workers, General Motors and Toyota at the GM-Toyota joint venture assembly plant in Fremont, Calif. Last fall, he successfully mediated an end to a six-month coal operators' strike. And this is not his first foray into the world of sports labor relations. When football players struck for 44 days before the 1974 NFL season, Usery's mediation helped settle the dispute before the season began.

Reich suggested that cancellation of the season might have drained some of the acrimony and tension from the negotiations, enhancing chances for successful mediation, but Usery faces a situation that is complicated by other issues.

Management lawyer Chuck O'Connor said Friday that the owners will decide next week whether to impose a 45-day freeze on contract signings. The union has indicated that it will not agree to the freeze request and would challenge unilateral imposition by the owners with a collusion grievance.

The owners have also requested a delay in today's scheduled start of free-agent filing until Nov. 30, but agents contacting the union on Friday were told to begin filing their players today.

"We're proceeding under the old rules," agent Alan Meersand said, adding that he will file on behalf of Dodger third baseman Tim Wallach today.

There are about 170 players eligible for free agency. Those filing can talk to any club but can sign only with their own until Nov. 1.

Times staff writer Ross New-han in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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