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Ross Newhan ON BASEBALL

Miller in Unison With Players

July 05, 2002|Ross Newhan

He is 85, in the 20th summer of retirement, and his voice and opinions in support of the union he built into one of the country's most powerful remain as firm as ever, as rigidly insistent as at any time in his 16 years as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Assn.

Reached at his Manhattan apartment, Marvin Miller said that should the sport experience a ninth work stoppage, an interruption in the 2002 season or postseason, it will be the result again of management demands, an attempt by owners to have the union join them in cutting future salary growth.

Miller called it a "replay of everything I've seen" in baseball's tumultuous labor history and "so atypical" again of labor disputes in other industries--disputes in which it is usually the union making demands--that "it's hard to describe and even harder to grasp."

"For 30 years now, ever since the '72 pension fight, every dispute that has led to a stoppage has been over issues raised by management," Miller said.

"It's like nothing we've seen [in any other industry]."

Whether the owners alone were responsible for all eight work stoppages is debatable. On that, Miller may be guilty of revisionist history.

There is one certainty: Although the union would be happy if the current system continued, it is the owners' quest for increased revenue sharing and a tax on high payrolls that has driven the current bargaining negotiations--as intermittent and nonproductive as they are--to the brink of a decision by the union on whether to set a strike date and, if so, whether it should be in August, September or beyond.

Union officials and player representatives from each of the 30 teams will meet in Chicago on Monday to discuss the possibilities, but the latest indication is that the players will delay setting a date so as not to overshadow Tuesday's All-Star game.

Whether it happens Monday or later, the setting of a strike date might accelerate negotiations and provide the union with its only option if owners declare an impasse and unilaterally implement new work rules.

But it might also leave fans convinced again that greedy players would be responsible for any work stoppage.

"No other conclusion is possible," Miller said when asked if he felt it was the owners' intention from the start to implement. "And if the union sets a strike date, we're going to get the usual, 'Oh boy, the union wants more; what do they want now?'

"Nobody will interpret it as the only defensive move the union can make.

"I mean, the hope [in setting a date] is that the losses involved in a long strike would make the owners think twice about the demands they are making."

What would Miller, who headed the union from 1966 until 1982 after 16 years with the United Steelworkers of America, recommend?

"I'm really not close enough to the situation," he said, "but my feeling is that if the union and players feel there's no possibility of a reasonable settlement, I think an [August] strike date would make more sense than a later one.

"If your object is to inflict some pain in the hope that you bring [negotiating] reality to the front again, I think you do that earlier than later [when there's still hope of saving the postseason].

"On the other hand, if the union feels, for whatever reasons, this is all a lot of foreplay and a settlement is possible, that's different."

In a wide-ranging interview, Miller:

* Suggested that the NFL, NBA and NHL unions had basically sold out to management by agreeing in their current labor contracts to "join what amounts to a conspiracy with the employer to cut its members' future salaries";

* Said he is convinced, despite ownership laments about competitive and revenue disparity, that this is a "golden age in baseball";

* Voiced puzzlement at how big-market clubs continue to back bargaining proposals that will cost them significant revenue;

* Expressed support of drug testing where there is probable cause but said he opposed random testing for steroids or other substances because it invades privacy, could be used for indiscriminate abuse by management and "there is a little too much confidence in test results. The number of false positives is alarming."

* Accused Commissioner Bud Selig of obvious conflicts of interest, saying it goes beyond the most obvious of those conflicts--his role as commissioner and club owner. Selig has put his Milwaukee Brewers in a blind trust, but Miller said that doesn't change the facts or perspective.

As owner of a "so-called have not" in baseball's revenue lexicon, Miller said Selig is "using his position as commissioner to push for a solution to baseball's so-called problems" that will directly benefit his small-market team, which is a "textbook definition of a conflict of interest."

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