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Baseball Owners Offer More; NLRB Hearing Set for Friday

March 28, 1995|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Baseball's labor dispute produced litigation and negotiation Monday, with the National Labor Relation Board's pursuit of an injunction in a federal district court in New York ultimately upstaged by a new bargaining proposal by the owners.

U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor scheduled a hearing for Friday, two days before the 1995 season is scheduled to begin with replacement players, on the NLRB request for a preliminary injunction that would force owners to reinstate key provisions of the expired labor agreement and prompt the players to end the 7 1/2-month strike.

Shortly after Sotomayor conducted a 30-minute hearing Monday afternoon and instructed owners to present their briefs by the close of court on Wednesday and the NLRB to respond on Thursday, negotiators for the sides returned to the bargaining table for the first time in 23 days, with the owners making several concessions on pivotal issues.

"I would say to you after a lot of agonizing, that this proposal is much less than the clubs hoped to achieve, but. . . . we are at the point. . . . where both sides must swallow hard to make an agreement," acting commissioner Bud Selig said.

Selig said the owners have gone as far as they can, a statement that troubled union officials but might have been a negotiating ploy.

He set a weekend deadline, suggesting, as has been reported, that if a settlement is reached the owners are willing to delay the start of the season by three weeks to give striking players an opportunity to prepare.

Union leader Donald Fehr said he would respond after discussing the proposal with the players' negotiating committee today.

The proposal would span the six years through 2000 and keep the expired system in place for 1995.

Starting in 1996:

--The players could keep the current system of arbitration and free agency or exchange it for unrestricted free agency for players with four or more years of major league service, in which case arbitration would be phased out after 1996.

The owners' previous proposal eliminated arbitration, allowed six-year players to retain unrestricted free agency and left four- and five-year players with restricted free agency based on right of first refusal.

The new proposal would allow the players to keep the system as it is, but some union officials didn't think that would be worth much under a luxury tax they still contend is the equivalent of a salary cap.

In addition, the officials pointed out, if they choose to trade that current arbitration and free agency system for the offer of unrestricted free agency after four years, it would disenfranchise those two- and three-year players currently eligible for arbitration.

--The pivotal tax--previously 50% on all payroll above the major league average of $40.7 million--would now be 50% on all payroll above 108% of the average, or $44 million. Based on 1994 projections, 15 clubs would have been taxed under the previous proposal, 12 under the new proposal.

Union officials said it still represents a significant deterrent to free-market spending, particularly when combined with a revenue-sharing plan the union considers a drag on salaries, because, as one official said, "it takes money from the high-revenue clubs, which drive the market."

The previous union proposal called for a 25% tax on all payroll above $54.1 million. Only the Detroit Tigers, who had a payroll of $56.7 million last year, would have been taxed. Sources insist a threshold of $47 million with a rate of 35% or 40% would produce a union compromise, but it's not certain the owners will go for it.

The new proposal, according to the owners, would also include stricter minimum club payrolls, ensuring that money transferred from the high-revenue clubs to the smaller-revenue clubs would be spent on salaries.

"While this proposal does not satisfy all of the needs of the clubs, it does provide some economic relief," Selig said.

The union may still choose to put its trust in an injunction. The union's executive board meets in New York Wednesday and is expected to frame a resolution documenting the union's intention to end the strike and return to work if the NLRB obtains an injunction, forcing reinstatement of salary arbitration, free agent bidding and the anti-collusion clause of the expired agreement.

Whether the owners would attempt to respond with a lockout or whether they would have the 21 necessary votes is still uncertain.

If the injunction is not granted, the union may end the strike, forcing owners to weigh the legal, financial and public relations consequences of a lockout that would serve a vital function for the union, preserving solidarity by preventing tempted players from returning.

Daniel Silverman, the NLRB's regional director in New York, urged Sotomayor to proceed expeditiously in "leveling the playing field" before the season starts.

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