On the official opening day of spring training the festering labor crisis in baseball became dramatically more inflamed today.
The executive board of the Major League Players Association voted unamimously here today to recommend to its members that they authorize a baseball strike on or after April 1.
The only other time in the game's history that the union board made such a recommendation was in 1972. Then, the players backed it with a 663-10 ratification vote and the players went on strike.
"We're getting our guns in position," said Martin Miller, executive director of the MLPA, who now will tour all 26 major league training camps to seek ratification of a strike by vote from each team.
Many of baseball's biggest names were here today, not swinging bats but rattling the biggest saber they could muster.
Player representatives -- from Reggie Jackson and Don Baylor to Phil Niekro and Tommy John -- flew in from all the Florida and Arizona camps for the five-hour meeting.
"This is the strongest possible action we could take at this time," said Miller. "It's the ultimate that could have come out of this meeting. The vote was 27-0 (26 player representatives plus one player from the pension committee).
"We have been in negotiation on a new basic agreement for 16 weeks and we have gone nowhere. We don't even know what management really wants yet. It's all been a stall," said Miller.
"Obviously, the owners think it costs them nothing to test the will (power) of the players by precipitating a crisis just before opening day.
"I'm sure the owners will not comsider the board's vote today as the decisive test," Miller said, smiling. "The players' vote between now and April 1 will be the real test."
Later, however, after a press conference outside the motel where the board met, Miller allowed that "if the owners are really determined to take this thing to the wall, then even a strike authorization vote won't convince them.
"They'll want to see who actually shows up at the ballpark on opening day and who won't.
"If this is their intent -- and there's no indication that it isn't -- then they will force us to the very brink to see if we'll buckle in negotiations.
"The owners ought to know from experience that if we call a strike on April 2 or April 3, there's not going to be an opening day on April 9. We're not going to go back in and politely give them a full 162-game schedule if they force us to the last extremity of a strike just as a test. If we go out, it will cost."
The owners, since the last contract expired Dec. 13, have unveiled an elaborate new bargaining strategy, proposing fundamental changes in three major areas: mandatory salary scales for players with six-or-less years' experience, partial compensation to teams which loss free agents, and changes in the pension plan.
This afternoon, both Miller and his famous reps presented a unified front in proclaiming that all of the owners' proposals had been found unacceptable and, in fact, not even worthy of their discussion.
"Not one word was mentioned by anyone about compromise," said Miller. "Management's proposals are radical departures which attempt to turn back the clock on gains we've already made. If they continue this strategy, there's no chance of reaching an agreement."
In fact, according to a member of the union's legal staff who was at the board meeting, the central topic of debate was not the owners' salary or compensation proposals, but what date would be most effective for a strike if management doesn't change its demands.
"Who says it has to be April 1 or April 9," said the source, a lawyer. "It can be May 15, or June 1, or any time.
"We have to figure out when we have maximum leverage. There's no hint yet of a decision. We're just in the early stages of trying to decide.
"What's clear is that the longer we wait, the higher the stakes are going to go in this crap game, and the move damage that will be done by a strike.
"But, if you're sure that your membership is solid -- and we think we'll get 99 percent support just as we did in '72 -- then the dice are loaded your way."
The owners fired the first tactical shot in this war with their subtle proposals on salary scales and partial compensation. The proposals looked innocent on the surface but have a hard financial kernel that would save management tens of millions of dollars in the 1980s.
Today, the players showed that they have fully digested the owners' strategy, have seen its long-range implications, and have decided to meet it with a frontal assault of their own.
"Management's salary scales are intend, over time, to reduce salaries in the zero to six season class by 30 percent," said a board resolution. "Their compensation system is intened to impair the freedom and bargaining power of free agents while eventually opening the door to the practical elimination of free agentry."
Miller and owners' representative Ray Grebey have a negotiating session scheduled for Wednesday in Clearwater, Fla., but, Miller said today, "I would not anticipate any change in either position."
The owners, for their part, have a meeting here Thursday at which time more verbal parrying and mud-slinging can be expected.
"In an era of such unparralleled prosperity for baseball, there is no need for this confrontation," Miller said today.