Baseball power struggle unresolved by postponement of strike

If the hidden issues bubbling beneath the surface of baseball's threatened strike could be put to a lie detector test, what would probably emerge is a far-reaching power struggle between owners and players.

Anyway, the deadline date for a strike, originally June 1, has been extended at least until later this week -- with a possibility that it may be put on hold for another full year. All this was agreed to by both sides, plus US District Court Judge Henry Werker, at a May 29 hearing in New York.

Basically the problem boils down to: (a) the owners' demand for more compensation than an amateur draft pick when they lose a "ranking" player to free agency and (b) the players' desire to keep things as they have been the last few years.

Although most owners make a tremendous amount of money when you add TV revenue, food consumption, and souvenir sales to soaring attendance figures, the cost of player salaries, ballpark maintenance, and general operation can be staggering.

With the average salary reportedly at $163,000, transportation and hotel costs high, and meal money on the road approaching $40 a day, the owners would like to slow things down a little. Baseball ticket prices are still relatively low compared with other pro sports, but increases may be on the way.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and some owners have implied that free agency has upset the game's balance and may be driving some teams into bankruptcy.

The players see this as a smokescreen to hide huge profits, which is what recently prompted them to file an unfair labor practices complaint in the hopes of forcing the owners to open their books.

The National Labor Relations Board agreed, ruling that by refusing to open its books in negotiations while at the same time complaining about the costs of free agency, management had failed to bargain in good faith.

This case is scheduled to be heard by an administrative court judge in New York beginning June 15, but whatever he decides, the ruling will be subject to appeals which could delay its implementation. Therefore, the NLRB has requested an injunction which would postpone the entire matter for a year.

That case is to be heard by a federal judge in Rochester, N.Y., on Wednesday. If he grants the injunction in its present wording, the effect will be to maintain the status quo for this season and make June 1, 1982, the new strike deadline. If he denies the injunction request, however, the players could still walk out later this week.

It was the very same compensation issue, of course, which brought the game to the brink of a strike a year ago. The walkout was averted with the provision that the owners could institute their version of a compensation clause for 1981 -- but that if they did so, the players could strike at any time up to June 1.

In February the owners adopted the controversial clause, which defines a "ranking" player and says that the team losing him may choose a professional player (with some restrictions) from the signing club.

The players, who question management's definition of a "ranking" player, and who say the entire procedure would severely restrict their freedom of movement, declared their intentions to walk out if they and the owners couldn't negotiate an agreement before the deadline. Now such action is again being postponed -- perhaps for a few days, perhaps for a year -- but whatever happens in the courts , the issue must sometime be resolved by the two sides.

If there eventually is a strike, it is estimated that the 26 major league clubs' daily loss from ticket revenue would be approximately $1.25 million. However, the owners reportedly have $50 million in strike insurance to help cut this down.

The players' loss, if the strike should last 10 days, for example, would amount to approximately $6 million. It would also affect individual bonus clauses based on games played, runs batted in, home runs, etc.

Ray Grebey, the owners' chief negotiator, has also warned players that even a few days lost via a strike could affect their free agent status at the end of the season.

The man the owners must contend with is Marvin Miller, a former assistant to the president of the United Steel Workers of America, who became the Major League Baseball Players Association's first and only executive director in 1966.

The phenomenal increase in fringe benefits and salary structure the players have made since then were spotlighted last year in a Sports Illustrated feature, which included the following information.

"(1) Struck down an agreement among the owners dating to 1879 that bound a player to one organization for the life of his career unless his employer elected either to trade or sell him as he might an automobile or garden tool.

"(2) Got wages increased by a whopping 462 percent (by comparison, salaries of manufacturing workers in the US increased about 150 percent in that period).

"(3) Secured provision for impartial arbitration of individual salary disputes.

"(4) Acquired extraordinary pension benefits (a 10-year player may, for example, start collecting $1,275 a month for life at age 55).

"(5) Transformed what were once literally wage slaves into independent contractors, who, at a specific point in their careers, can sell themselves on the open market to the highest bidder, while, at the same time, united these free spirits into a functioning, formidable organization."

Assessing the present situation, the owners have a huge investment to protect and the players want to make sure that they are not getting cheated on benefits.

What neither side seems to understand is that a strike, if it were to continue for any length of time, might alert the public to the fact that it can do without baseball. Strikes have ruined great businesses before, and considering that neither money nor working conditions are the issues here, who knows how the public might react?

While a ballplayer who can either hit a curveball or throw one may be in super demand in a major league park, his athletic talents aren't apt to count for much among the nation's regular work force.

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