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Union Offers Playoff Money as Giveback

August 12, 1996|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An offer by the baseball players' union to give back a significant share of its receipts from the new divisional playoffs stimulated the sudden series of meetings that seem to have brought negotiators to the verge of an elusive bargaining agreement, sources said Sunday.

The frequency of those meetings--virtually around the clock from Friday morning to mid-evening Saturday--slowed Sunday as representatives of the players and owners tried to make final trade-offs and fill in final gaps.

However, both sides remained optimistic, saying they continue to make progress on the road toward a possible settlement.

"It's not unusual for the pace and movement to slow at this point," union lawyer Eugene Orza said, comparing Sunday's meetings to negotiations that had produced major movement Friday and Saturday.

"However, any movement that narrows the gaps is positive, and in that sense it's still positive."

Said John Harrington, the Boston Red Sox chief executive officer and a member of management's labor policy committee:

"You never know when a minor thing could become major, but we're continuing to make progress. Both sides are hopeful we're coming down the stretch."

A settlement today would be appropriate. It's the second anniversary of the beginning of the players' 234-day strike.

Negotiators met three times Sunday and were still at it after midnight in New York.

Before Friday, they had conducted irregular and low-profile meetings that had narrowed some differences but were moving so slowly that the owners were threatening to make a "last and final" offer this week and return to court, if necessary, to seek lifting of the injunction that ended the strike by reinstating the expired work rules on March 31, 1995.

Spurred by that possibility, perhaps, union head Donald Fehr went to management negotiator Randy Levine on Friday morning and said "enough is enough with threats."

Having already reached tentative agreement with Levine on a five-year scenario in which 1996 and 2000 would be devoid of the payroll tax that the owners were seeking as a form of cost containment, Fehr's quest for a second, tax-free year at the end of a six-year agreement had been thwarted by Levine and loomed to be the latest deal breaker.

In what became a successful attempt to overcome that hurdle, Fehr suggested the union be given a sixth-year option on a tax-free 2001.

In exchange, the union would reduce their share of first-round playoff gate receipts from 80% to 60% and give owners the right to expand those series from five games to seven, starting in 1997.

If the players exercise their option on 2001, as expected, the owners would gain about $20 million from the players' reduced share of a five-game series and between $30 million and $40 million from a seven-game series.

As part of that and other complex tradeoffs, the owners may join the players in asking Congress to remove baseball's antitrust exemption as it applies to labor matters. Under that limited change, owners could still control franchise movement, but players would find it easier to challenge labor decisions in court.

Among other agreements, as they fill in gaps:

--Clubs will be taxed 35% on all payroll over $51 million in 1997 and over $55 million in 1998. The 1999 tax and threshold is still being negotiated.

--Player salaries will be taxed 2.5% in each of the first two years, generating about $50 million. Three-fourths of that will go to the owners' revenue sharing pool, the rest to a joint industry growth fund.

--The owners' revenue sharing plan, a market deterrent in itself, the union contends, because it takes money from the large-revenue clubs that fuel the market, will be phased in, starting at 60% each of the first two years and not taking full effect until 2000.

--The minimum salary will be increased from $109,000 to about $150,000, with incremental increases in each ensuing year, and a three-man panel will make arbitration decisions.

If there is a stumbling block, it's the issue of service time.

Players have always had it restored after previous stoppages. The union has said there will be no deal without it and has assumed the owners would not have gone this far if they didn't intend to include it.

However, some owners oppose restoration in the wake of their longest and costliest dispute, and a management source said Sunday:

"It remains an open issue."

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