SBJ/July 8 - 14, 2002/Labor Agents

Players look for leverage

Sentiment is growing among agents and labor lawyers that baseball players will set a strike date, possibly as early as today, when player representatives meet in Chicago.

Agents and labor lawyers say that setting a strike date is the players' only opportunity to gain leverage before the owners either lock them out or unilaterally implement a new work system when the season is over. Players have the most leverage in August or September, after they have earned most of their money for the year but before owners have received big revenue from the playoffs and World Series.

Some agents said that although player representatives could set a date today, they don't expect them to do so. Rather, they said, players may discuss a series of dates, take two or three options back to their clubs for discussion and hold a conference call in a few weeks to set a date.

If that scenario is correct, players could be following the same path they took before the 1994-95 baseball strike.

In 1994, player representatives met on July 11, the day before the All-Star Game, and discussed possible strike dates, but did not set one. Players did set a date 21/2 weeks later and walked out on Aug. 12, 1994. That strike, the longest in baseball history, ended on April 2, 1995.

"The last thing the players want is a work stoppage," MLB players union chief Donald Fehr said in a statement. "But unfortunately the clubs have refused to rule out a lockout or unilateral change in working conditions in the off-season — a move that would replicate the recent long NBA stoppage — and the players would be foolish not to take that into consideration in their deliberations."

Rob Manfred, MLB's chief labor executive, said, "The clubs are doing absolutely nothing that would lead them to believe we are looking for a lockout or unilateral implementation after the season."

Industry experts say players could face significant public backlash if they do strike. But Robert Lanza, former general counsel of the National Basketball Players Association, noted that NBA players were widely viewed as the bad guys during the 1998-99 work stoppage, even though owners locked the players out.

"I think during the NBA lockout everybody was calling it a strike," Lanza said. "It's an uphill battle in P.R. and the bottom line is it is really secondary. Even if [the players] win, so what? How many dollars does winning the P.R. war put in your pocket?"

Lanza said that setting a strike date before the playoffs is when baseball players have real leverage. Setting a date doesn't necessarily mean players will walk out but could expedite negotiations toward an agreement, he said.

But Evan Spelfogel, attorney with the firm of Epstein, Becker & Green, which has advised a number of Fortune 500 companies on labor disputes, doesn't think that setting a strike date will necessarily hasten a deal. "I have always advised my clients not to put a penny more on the table than you would before the strike vote," he said.

Staff writer Russell Adams contributed to this story.

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