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Umpires Replace Phillips, His Union

Baseball: Longtime labor chief's downfall stemmed from his mass-resignation strategy that backfired.

December 01, 1999|TIM BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two weeks before a hearing they hope will save 22 jobs and a month before their contract expires, major league umpires voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to replace lawyer Richie Phillips' union with a union of their own.

The result appeared to sever a 21-year tie with Phillips, who failed in his attempt in July to bully baseball into a new agreement. A mass-resignation strategy backfired, costing 22 umpires their livelihoods and, ultimately, Phillips his hold on their union.

By a landslide, the umpires asked for his resignation. According to the National Labor Relations Board, which counted the mail-in ballots Tuesday in New York, there were 57 votes for the Major League Umpires Independent Organizing Committee, which will be run by umpires and advised by player agent Ron Shapiro.

Thirty-five umpires voted to retain the Major League Umpires Assn., headed by Phillips. Though one vote was voided because it was signed, only a majority was required.

An objection can be filed by Dec. 7, and union president Jerry Crawford suggested Tuesday in New York that that was likely. The former union would have to prove that illegal conduct affected the vote's outcome. But the opportunity to investigate won't be ignored, so the battle figures to be waged.

"Today is a statement by all umpires that it's time for a change," said AL umpire John Hirschbeck, who organized the umpires against Phillips.

It was a messy summer for the umpires, who first followed Phillips' ploy, then criticized it for its recklessness when 22 umpires were fired. Baseball hired 25 new umpires from the minor leagues.

Phillips filed a grievance and, despite Tuesday's vote, his union will present the case to an arbitrator Dec. 13.

"We won't interfere," Shapiro said. "We'll do everything we can from a legal standpoint to support it."

Shapiro intends to represent the umpires in collective bargaining negotiations with baseball. The current contract expires Dec. 31. When the new contract is signed, Shapiro will resign and the union will be free to elect a new president.

Most of Phillips' support came from senior NL umpires, including Crawford. Hirschbeck's dissidents were largely AL umpires.

"The other union won," Crawford said. "I'm upset.

"Richie Phillips is very, very, very concerned about the 22 guys. He's been pretty much out of the daily operation of the union. I don't think it was a strong indictment of Richie. They won. I guess they had a stronger campaign than we had."

Despite Crawford's assertion, Phillips' hold over the union appears to be over. As the election drew near, he lost the support of many of the umpires who originally defended him and the bold strategy that eventually splintered the union.

In a reign that lasted more than two decades, Phillips was credited for significantly raising umpires' salaries and their standards of living. The minimum wage for an umpire last season was $95,000, up from $17,500 in 1979. Some senior umpires earned as much as $282,500 last season.

Phillips led umpires through strikes in the 1979 and 1991 seasons, along with a postseason strike in 1984. Baseball locked umpires out for the first eight days of 1995.

Umpire Joe Brinkman predicted a healing process for umpires on opposite sides of the vote.

"I think they'll come back," Brinkman said of Phillips' supporters. "It's just a matter of time."

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