The Major League Umpires Association filed unfair labor practice charges against the American and National leagues yesterday in the New York office of the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that team owners are "unlawfully discharging" 22 umpires as a result of their union activities. The umpires union also filed an unfair labor practices charge that the leagues are failing to negotiate a new labor contract in good faith as part of "a pattern of unfair labor practices."
Major League Baseball will replace the 22 umpires, beginning Sept. 2, after they and 33 of the 46 other major league umpires submitted their resignations last month. The resignations were part of a strategy by the union to prod Major League Baseball to start negotiations on a new labor contract. As solidarity rapidly dissolved, all 55 umpires attempted to rescind their resignations; the leagues accepted the resignations of nine American League and 13 National League umpires.
"It's illegal to punish people who stood up for their union and in a retaliatory manner pick and choose who you chip," Susan Davis, the umpires' attorney, said during a news conference in Manhattan. "They went one by one and picked them off."
Major League Baseball responded by filing a grievance against the umpires association. "There is absolutely no merit to any of the charges and the leagues will vigorously contest each and every allegation," Commissioner Bud Selig, AL President Gene Budig and NL President Leonard Coleman said in a joint statement released early last night.
The grievance alleges that the umpires' resignations amount to a strike and therefore breached the collective bargaining agreement, and that the umpires have not faithfully performed their duties as employees, a source with Major League Baseball said.
The union wants the NLRB to issue a complaint against the leagues and to seek a federal court order keeping the 22 umpires on the job.
Dan Silverman, director of the NLRB's New York office, said that although an investigation has begun, it is too early to tell whether it will be complete before Sept. 2. "Traditionally," he said, "a case like this takes four to six weeks. We'll do the best we can."
The National Labor Relations Act guarantees several concepts that will be considered in this case:
Did baseball discriminate against the umpires because of lawful union activities?
Did baseball negotiate in good faith?
By moving control of the umpires from the leagues to the centralized commissioner's office last winter, did baseball change the conditions of employment? If there was a change, were the terms of employment changed unilaterally?
At a news conference yesterday, the umpires said that two of the 22 umpires who "resigned" actually never did but that the league "accepted" their resignations. Instead of attending a July 15 union meeting, where the resignations were signed, Drew Coble, the only AL umpire among the seven umps at yesterday's news conference, said he was home in North Carolina helping his wife, who was undergoing chemotherapy that day.
"Because of this family crisis, I didn't attend the union meeting and didn't know that any resignations had been submitted until several days later," he said. "Understandably, I was stunned when I received a letter from the American League accepting my `resignation.' "
"There was indeed some confusion about their status," Phyllis Merhige, the AL's senior vice president, said Monday, according to the Associated Press. "Each of them was called by league officials and each of them confirmed their resignations. Now it's with the lawyers."
After reading the three-page NLRB filing, Rodney Fort, a Washington State University professor and co-author of the book "Hardball: The Abuse of Power in Pro Sports," said that some umpires may be able to recover individual damages, but added, "I don't see a linchpin issue on which a judge will issue an injunction. It seems to me the umpires made their bed and now they have to sleep in it. It's like a guy walks up and tells his boss, `Shove this job,' and then regrets it the minute the words come out of his mouth."