A week ago today, representatives for the baseball owners and players negotiated for three hours at the Doral Inn on Lexingtion Avenue in New York, a hotel generally frequented by stewardesses and foreign students. Reports, more familiar with box scores than labor negotiations, ran for phone, dictating stories that progress had been made in the effort to avert a strike. After all, they reasoned, the previous bargaining session had lasted only seven minutes; something must be happening.
Around 6 o'clock, Ray Grebey, the owners' chief negotiator, entered the pressroom/ballroom and said there had been no progress.
As he left, he was overheard telling Marvin Miller, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, what he had told the press.
Miller's message was the same -- no progress.
In fact, something had happened. In off-the-record talks, which are not the sort of thing disputants in labor negotiations tell the press, Grebey had sent a message to Miller through the federal mediator: "What other format (of compensation) do you have in mind?"
The union's response was a proposal for a pool of players drawn from each club that a team losing a free agent could pick from. The proposal was made informally Monday, then formally on Saturday.
Grebey publicly rejected it, saying it did not "provide a framework for a settlement," in part because, "a club which does not even sign a free agent could be forced to give up a player as compensation."
Nonetheless, federal mediator Kenneth E. Moffett said, "I'm not as pessimistic as I was last week."
There is reason for that. The players' association says that the specifies of its proposal are negotiable if, as Don Fehr, the general counsel, put it, "the concept is okay."
That may be a big "if," but as Fehr pointed out, "Last year, we made the proposal for the study committee, they rejected it, and look what we ended up with."
In short, although the owners rejected this specific proposal, if they choose to accept the idea of pooled compensation, the specifies may be able to be revised enough to make the plan palatable to both sides.
Clearly, the free-agent compensation the owners have insisted upon is designed to drive down salaries and limit bargaining power. "Compensation that must be paid by the club who signs the free agent isn't going to float," said Fehr. Not surprising given that 295 players become eligible for free agency in the next three years.
Despite Grebey's courtroom testimony that last spring's agreement represented a "solution that disposed of the problem," the owners must know that the players' association never regarded it as such. As Miller testified, "There was an agreement on procedure. Quite the reverse, the whole reason for studying and postponing was disagreement."
As long as the owners insist upon the form of free-agent compensation they have proposed, and insist the players have agreed to it, the players will insist that the owners are trying to provoke a strike. As Fehr said, "Holding to that position means there will be a strike unless a third party intervenes."
So, if there is to be no strike, one of two things must happen. U.S. District Judge Henry F. Werker must issue an unjunction prohibiting the owners from implementing their free-agent compensation plan until next spring and giving the players the right to strike at that time; or a proposal must be found that would allow the owners to say they have gotten compensation and allow Miller to sell it to the players, who may be more militant than the owners realize.
That is the potential of the pool concept. It would allow the owners to say they have achieved their primary demand -- compensation in the form of a major-league player -- and the players to say they have gotten theirs -- a form of compensation that does not lower salaries or reduce bargaining power.
The imponderable is Werker's decision on the National Labor Relations Board's request for an injunction. Throughtout the hearings, Werker showed impatience with baseball's leisurely pace. But, after closing arguments Thursday, he extended his self-imposed deadline for making a decision 48 hours after the end of the hearings.
Some observers in Rochester felt this was an indication that the legal questions before the judge were tougher than he expected. And, it gave some pause to those who came away from the hearing convinced that the odds were that he would rule against the NLRB and the players.
No matter when the decision comes, if it goes against the players, time is going to be short. There will be 24 hours for the players to decide whether to strike, for the NLRB to decide whether to appeal, or for a negotiated settlement.
That is what the players have said they want all along, and that is what they were saying to the public and to the 26 owners, with their proposal Saturday.
"Usually, the employer tries to avert a work stoppage," Miller says. "Here, there is a role reversal. The worst part is while we're doing everything to avert a strike, they interpret it as weakness."
Whether the owners respond to this proposal as a basis for settlement or a sign of weakness won't be clear until negotiations are resumed this afternoon or until the judge rules. One thing is clear.There is only so far that the players can or will go in compromising on what is for them a "give-back issue." As one source close to the union said, "If they don't want to buy into this, they can come to us whenever they change their minds."