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Union, Owners Continue Talks

Baseball: If negotiations go nowhere, the players might discuss setting strike date for as soon as Aug. 16.

July 29, 2002|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Baseball's labor negotiations, mired in differences over revenue sharing and yet to tackle the thornier issue of a payroll tax, resume in New York today.

Sources close to the process say that barring a sudden surge of progress in the talks, the executive board of the players' union could confer by telephone as soon as Friday or, more likely, early next week to set a strike date.

Although a large group of players has emerged from executive director Don Fehr's series of briefings with each of the clubs thinking that the union has tentatively targeted Sept. 16 as a strike date (as reported recently by The Times and other media outlets), Fehr and his staff insist they have not decided on a date or determined if one is necessary.

But according to sources, if the union concludes that negotiations are going nowhere and calls for an executive board vote as soon as Friday or early next week, the strike date might be set for as soon as Aug. 16.

The union is also believed to have circled Sept. 1 and Sept. 28, but the likely choice, the sources believe, is between Aug. 16 and Sept. 16.

Said a high-ranking baseball official Sunday:

"The clubs continue to tell me that their players think Sept. 16 is the date, but that could be strictly speculation.

"If the union is determined to set a date, thinking it would serve some purpose, it could be August, as it was in '94."

The union, hoping to spark negotiations and avoid the prospect of the owners declaring an impasse and unilaterally implementing new work rules, set a 1994 strike date of Aug. 14 about two weeks before that.

When that deadline failed to produce an agreement, the players began a strike, the World Series was ultimately canceled and the 232-day stoppage ended only when a federal judge found the owners, who had implemented new work rules, guilty of illegal labor practice.

If the players this time go out Aug. 16 or so, they would run the risk of losing three paychecks (they are paid on the 15th and 30th of each month during the regular season), but they would have about six weeks to reach an agreement that could save the postseason.

If they went out Sept. 16, they would lose only one paycheck and ensure that they would be playing Sept. 11, the date of last year's terrorist attacks and a major public relations consideration. However, the window for saving the postseason would be much narrower.

Fehr continues to say the issues are solvable and that a strike date is a last resort, but he also believes that a deadline can stimulate the talks.

Basically, there are three major issues, and the sides seem within compromise distance on two.

* Simplistically, they agree on the concept of one worldwide draft and only have to compromise on the number of rounds.

* On revenue sharing, they are basically separated by only $70 million--the owners at about $298 million and the players at $228 million--in the amount to be shared.

In an industry that produces revenue of $3.6 billion or more, that would seem to be a difference easily compromised, but they also differ over method of distribution.

Management favors a straight pool that calls for the money to be spread evenly among the 30 teams.

The union favors a split pool that would find more money going to the smaller-revenue teams even while taking less from the New York Yankees and other big-market teams that drive the salary scale.

There is also an issue of how much money will be taken from baseball's central fund--repository for national TV and licensing revenue--to help finance the revenue-sharing pool, but the debate, as union lawyer Steve Fehr said, is over "methodology" and not the "magnitude" of the $70-million difference.

He said this after the sides met for five hours Thursday and for an hour Friday before separating to review where they were on the subject and continue exploring ways to merge, perhaps, the split- and straight-pool concepts.

Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president for labor relations, was unusually upbeat after Thursday's meeting, but there is speculation that he is attempting to paint a rosier picture so as to increase the onus on the players if they strike.

Of course, there is enough onus to go around, and even with an agreement on the draft and revenue sharing, that still leaves the contentious subject of a payroll tax that the union considers tantamount to a salary cap, even though it agreed to a three-year tax trial at basically inconsequential thresholds in the last bargaining agreement.

What to expect this week (besides Thursday's arbitration decision on the union's contraction grievance)?

Based on the eight work stoppages that have evolved from every previous labor negotiation, the safe bet is that the union's executive board can be expecting a call from the conference operator soon.

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