The Major League Baseball Players Association yesterday set a new strike deadline for Friday and ordered that no games be played that day, after a U.S. District Court judge in New York denied the National Labor Relations Boards request for an injunction in the ongoing labor dispute with baseball's team owners.
U.S. District Court Judge Henry F. Werker dismissed the petition for the injunction that would have prohibited the owners from implementing free-agent compensation -- the only strike issue -- until next spring. Ironically, he closed his opinion by exhorting the players to "play ball."
But Doug DeCinces of the Baltimore Orioles, the American League players' representative, said, "Everything's in gear. We're right back where we started from. His decision is going to create a strike in 48 hours." w
Under an informal agreement reached last week, the players have the right to strike no earler than 24 hours and no later than 48 hours after Werker made known his decision. By setting the deadline for Friday, "We're allowing the maximum time to negotiate," said Peter Rose, associate counsel of the players association. "We're giving them (the owners) one last shot to come back with something."
Federal mediator Kenneth E. Moffett has scheduled talks for this morning. But Don Fehr, general counsel for the players association, said he did not expect any progress to be made and added, "We did have a number of player representatives who asked, "Why do we have to wait until Friday?'"
"It would seem less than forthright if I didn't tell you I am elated by the judge's decision," said Ray Grebey, chief negotiator for the owners. "We went in believing we were right, and when a federal court says you're right, it can't help but make you feel good."
In a 23-page opinion issued yesterday, Werker said, "I find no reasonable cause to believe that an unfair labor practice has been committed by the respondents. The petition is therefore dismissed. PLAY BALL!!!"
Werker rejected the NLRB's contention that the owners had injected into the negotiations the question of their ability to pay the higher salaries some contended would arise from the players' demands for free agency. He reiterated what he said in court, that the NLRB had failed to show that the owners had raised that issue at the bargaining table. And he dismissed the evidence the NLRB had relied upon: statements made by owners to the press, as well as a speech by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn on the dire financial propects of the game. "The court cannot accept collective bargaining through the press as a basis for a 10 (j) injunction," Werker said.
"I cannot find that the comments by several club officials and the commissioner, relied upon by the petitioner, are statements of policy on behalf of the (owners') Player Relations Committee which would support a claim of inability to pay."
In filing an unfair labor practice charge against the owners last month, the union contended that if free agency is causing financial hardship in major league baseball, then the owners must document it with financial records. Werker concluded, along with the owners, that the players' charge was "not a sincere effort to obtain access to the clubs' financial records but rather a bargaining tactic . . . to prevent implementation" of free-agent compensation.
William A. Lubbers, general counsel for the NLRB, said the board would study the decision before deciding whether to appeal it. But Fehr said he did not expect the board to seek an emergency injunction to postpone the strike deadline.
He also pointed out that Werker's decision is not binding on the NLRB administrative law judge, who will rule on the merits of the unfair labor practice complaint, after a hearing beginning Monday in New York.
The players association maintained throughout the last 1 1/2 weeks of legal wrangling that contesting the injunction was further evidence that the owners were trying to provoke a strike. After the decision, Rose said, "Our feeling is that we've done everything we can to prevent a strike and they've done everything they can to provoke one. They've won. They're going to have their strike."
The players association regards free agent compensation "as a take back proposition," said Marvin Miller, the group's executive director. "The owners demand that the players give up free agency rights they already have. In return, the owners offer sharply reduced salaries and more restrictions in the players' future. The owners have sought this strike in the mistaken belief that they can force the players to their knees."
Currently, a team losing a player to free agency is compensated by a pick in the amateur draft. Under the owners' plan, in many cases compensation would be the 16th player on a 15-man major league roster.
Free-agent compensation has proven an emotional and intractable problem in baseball for years. Give-back issues usually are. But there is considerable feeling among the players that management has consistently underestimated the union's militancy on the issue. The players regard compensation as a freedom issue -- the freedom to sell themselves to the highest bidder -- as well as an economic one. It is difficult to underestimate the feeling given that 295 players will become eligible for free agency in the next three years.
The next question is, if there is a strike beginning with the Cubs-Padres game Friday afternoon, how will it affect the game? "My initial reaction was to get a knot in my stomach, but that's over now," said Oriole Manager Earl Weaver. "I just feel once this is over, it will be for the best. We've had a walkout before and still managed to make the game exciting enough to bring the fans back."