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Union Avoids Setting Date

Baseball: Officials, nonetheless, remain prepared for strike. Fehr says all options discussed at meeting.

July 09, 2002|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROSEMONT, Ill. — The executive board of the Major League Baseball Players Assn. did not set a strike date Monday, but many of the estimated 30 players who attended a five-hour meeting with union officials said they remained prepared for the possibility of a work stoppage this season.

"On the basis of history, you always have to be prepared, and that's the message I'll take back to my team," Cleveland pitcher Paul Shuey said.

Don Fehr, the union's executive director, said it was "neither the purpose nor result" of a regularly scheduled board meeting to set a strike date but added, "All options were discussed."

Sources familiar with those discussions said that if union officials conclude that the setting of a strike date is the only way to accelerate negotiations with the owners, or is the union's only option if convinced the owners plan to declare an impasse and unilaterally implement new work rules, the players will display their normal solidarity in support.

"A strike is a last resort," Fehr said. "Hopefully, in the next few weeks, we can get down to the type of substantive discussions that we've not had to this point."

Fehr will be in Los Angeles next week to continue updating all 30 teams--he has met with seven so far--while he and his staff also continue to negotiate with management.

It is unlikely, he suggested, that the union will consider setting a strike date before he is finished meeting with the teams--at the end of the month.

The timing is similar to that of 1994, when the executive board met on the eve of the All-Star game and refrained from setting a distracting strike date.

About two weeks later, however, the union--suspecting that the owners were intent on implementing new rules--called for a walkout Aug. 12. The deadline failed to produce an agreement, and the resulting 232-day work stoppage ended only when a federal judge found the owners guilty of illegal labor practices and threw out their implementation.

It is uncertain whether the union is again thinking of an August strike date, or would delay until September. However, several players--acknowledging the complexity of the issues and the slow pace of the talks--expressed cautious optimism regarding an agreement ("If we honestly didn't think a settlement was possible, we'd have set a date today," Minnesota infielder Denny Hocking said), and Fehr seemed to narrow the crux of negotiations to revenue sharing.

He called it "the single biggest issue" and said, "If we can resolve it, I think it would make the other issues [among them a luxury tax on high payrolls and a worldwide draft] easier to handle."

The high-revenue clubs transferred $167 million to the lower-revenue clubs last year. Fehr chronicled the history of the current proposals, and although he accused the owners of going backward from where they were last June, he suggested that on the basis of numbers, a compromise would seem possible. The owners, including the commissioner's proposed $85-million discretionary fund, are seeking to transfer about $298 million from the high-revenue teams. The union, concerned about inhibiting the clubs that drive the salary market, is at $228 million.

The sides differ on the method of distribution, with union officials believing the owners' plan actually pushes the low-revenue teams "even further from the middle," but an agreement on numbers, they concede, might lead to an agreement on method.

The officials concede that there seems to be less rancor and a bit more optimism than there was at a similar point in 1994, but they do not minimize the complexity of the issues, including steroid testing, and the history of mistrust.

The owners, in addition, may be determined to implement new work rules no matter what the union proposes, ignoring the potential damage of another work stoppage.

For the moment, Rob Manfred, management's lead lawyer, said he welcomed the players' decision not to set a strike date.

"We're anxious to get back to the table," he said.

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