SBJ/June 10 - 16, 2002/Labor Agents

Fehr, MLB trade shots at conference

Baseball union chief Donald Fehr and league negotiators traded barbs last week over the stalled collective-bargaining negotiations, blaming each other for the hardball tactics that threaten a play stoppage possibly as soon as August.

Fehr

Fehr, speaking to a gathering of the Sports Lawyers Association in Phoenix, said players are leery that baseball owners will try to "replicate" the NBA lockout imposed by the league after the 1997-98 season.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has pledged not to lock players out this season but has not ruled out action once the World Series has concluded or in spring training next year.

"Pardon us if we feel sort of surrounded on all sides in this process," Fehr, the MLB Players Association executive director, told the gathering. "And once again, the fundamental changes in the agreement are being proposed by management and not the players."

MLB negotiator Rob Manfred disputed Fehr's characterization of the talks, blamed the union for what he called delays in responding to proposals, and pointed out the players have also asked for major changes in salary and benefits.

Manfred added that Selig's pledge not to lock out players this season is meaningful, since the owners could have locked out the players before spring training or during the season.

"What has Don pledged to do?" Manfred asked rhetorically.

There is widespread speculation that players could strike in August, when they have received most of their salary and before owners receive revenue from the lucrative playoffs and World Series. Union attorney Gene Orza has acknowledged the need to consider setting a date.

Fehr did not directly address that speculation at the lawyers conference but noted that NBA owners "maximized their leverage" in 1998 by waiting for their postseason to end.

"Nobody could reasonably expect the players to pretend what we witnessed in the NBA, in fact, did not occur, or that a new member of the [MLB] owners' negotiating team this time was a member of the NBA team the last time," Fehr said.

The union chief did not identify the new member, but sources named Howard Ganz, a prominent management labor attorney at powerful New York law firm Proskauer Rose.

The labor talks, which did not start in earnest until spring, are bogged down over a variety of issues, including the league's proposal to share more revenue, impose a luxury tax on high payrolls and create a discretionary fund controlled by Selig, as well as changes in salary arbitration and free agency and increases in the minimum salary and player benefits.

On an issue that has recently become contentious, Fehr said players are concerned that Selig could use the discretionary fund to "reward and punish" owners based on whether they toe the line on financial issues.

Manfred, MLB's top labor executive, said league negotiators have already addressed the union's concerns by offering "to draft language in such a way that would address those possible abuses that he had raised," but the union has not responded.

Manfred said the players union has taken a long time to respond to the owners proposals. "That is, to me, the primary source of the difficulty," he said.

At the lawyers meeting, Fehr poked fun at owners' claims that the league is losing money. Selig has said the 30 teams combined to lose more than $500 million in 2001. Returning to a common theme in the talks, Fehr pointed out that baseball has doubled its revenue since 1996, the first full year after the 1994-1995 strike.

"Seemingly, the more money that comes in, the more problems [the owners] have," Fehr said.

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