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Fehr Says Expo Lawsuit Could Hurt Negotiations

July 19, 2002|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The head of the Major League Baseball Players Assn. suggested Thursday the sport's labor talks could soon grind to a halt because of Commissioner Bud Selig's legal battle over the future of the Montreal Expos.

Don Fehr, executive director of the union, cautioned about the possible effects on negotiations of a civil lawsuit brought by former minority partners of the Expos against Selig, Jeffrey Loria, owner of the Florida Marlins and former managing partner of the Expos, and Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer, accusing them of mail fraud and wire fraud.

The suit further delays Major League Baseball's plan to eliminate or auction the only club it operates, creating another potential distraction for owners with the sides resuming negotiations after a week off.

There was no movement on the core economic issues of revenue sharing among the clubs or a luxury tax on teams with high payrolls as collective bargaining resumed in New York, and Fehr worried that the process could become even more bogged down because of the situation in Montreal.

"It doesn't directly relate to the negotiations, but the presence of the suit has the capacity to complicate our bargaining significantly," Fehr said at Dodger Stadium before the San Diego Padres' 4-1 victory over the Dodgers. "Obviously, it's something that you realize could be a factor."

The group of former Expo minority owners, made up of prominent Canadian companies, contends that Selig, Loria and other high-ranking baseball officials conspired to eliminate baseball in Montreal and reduce the companies' holdings--from 76% to about 7%--in the club that baseball's 29 other teams combined to purchase from Loria for $120 million. The companies, which now own 6% of the Marlins, want the Expos to be placed in a trust and plan to seek an injunction if baseball tries to move or fold the team.

Although arbitrator Shyam Das is scheduled to announce his ruling on the union's contraction grievance on Aug. 1, the effects of the ruling, regardless of which side Das favors, cannot be negotiated until the Montreal matter is resolved. And having Selig and DuPuy, the owners' lead negotiator, distracted by a lawsuit seemingly might not be conducive to pushing the process forward.

"This suit involves people that don't have anything to do with us, but there are issues that could [impact] us indirectly," Fehr said. "It certainly doesn't make my job, getting an agreement for the players, any easier."

Talks had not been sailing along before the suit.

The union agreed to one worldwide draft in the last full negotiating session, but it would be limited to 16 rounds under their proposal and 38 rounds under the owners' plan, so the sides are still far apart on that issue.

Negotiations also have lagged on the major financial issues.

The high-revenue clubs transferred $167 million to the lower-revenue clubs last year, and the owners are now seeking to transfer about $298 million from the high-revenue teams in their proposal. The union is at $228 million.

The sides differ on the method of distribution, but an agreement on numbers might lead to an agreement on method. So a compromise would seem possible on that front, though other ancillary financial issues would have to be addressed beforehand.

"If you get rid of the other issues, which potentially relate to player salaries, then it could change," Fehr said. "Once we don't have to be concerned with those issues, then the revenue sharing issue becomes easier to deal with."

Fehr plans to complete his tour of all 30 clubs, updating players on the status of negotiations, by the end of the month, returning to New York to take part in talks and possibly set a strike date. It is uncertain whether the union is considering an August or September strike date.

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