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Players union rejects MLB’s offer for mediation as lockout drags on

The Post's Chelsea Janes explains what led to the lockout between the MLB players union and team owners, which has already resulted in canceled games. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)
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A day after Major League Baseball requested the help of a federal mediator to hasten negotiations with the players union, the union announced it would reject the voluntary process, opting instead to continue the talks without third-party involvement.

“Two months after implementing their lockout, and just two days after committing to Players that a counterproposal would be made, the owners refused to make a counter, and instead requested mediation,” the MLB Players Association said in a statement.

“After consultation with our Executive Board, and taking into account a variety of factors, we have declined this request. The clearest path to a fair and timely agreement is to get back to the table. Players stand ready to negotiate.”

It was not immediately clear how the the decision will affect the negotiations, though it certainly hasn’t eased tensions. A mediator would only have been able to provide suggestions and facilitate conversation, not create binding agreements. At times, as in the 2012-13 NHL lockout and as far back as the 1981 MLB labor negotiations, participants have lauded mediators as crucial to their eventual agreement. At other times, such as the 1994 MLB strike, they were unable to help at all.

When MLB requested mediation Thursday, the players union was waiting for a counterproposal that had yet to materialize. Instead, the league proposed the inclusion of a neutral voice, which people familiar with the union’s thinking interpreted more as a publicity stunt than a genuine effort to push the talks forward: If the union rejected the offer, it would look like the bad-faith negotiator. If it accepted, MLB representatives would be able to say they did everything they could to end the lockout.

MLB, on the other hand, argues forward progress was why they made the request. Besides, one official said, why would MLB invite outside scrutiny of a process if it was truly negotiating in bad faith?

“Our goal is to have players on the field and fans in the ballparks for Spring Training and Opening Day,” an MLB spokesman said Friday. “With camps scheduled to open in less than two weeks, it is time to get immediate assistance from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to help us work through our differences and break the deadlock. It is clear the most productive path forward would be the involvement of an impartial third party to help bridge gaps and facilitate an agreement.

“It is hard to understand why a party that wants to make an agreement would reject mediation from the federal agency specifically tasked with resolving these disputes, including many successes in professional sports. MLB remains committed to offering solutions at the table and reaching a fair agreement for both sides.”

Either way, pitchers and catchers are supposed to report to spring training camps in less than two weeks and teams will need time to finish offseason processes, such as free agency, that were truncated by the start of the lockout in early December. A delayed start to spring training is almost inevitable.

But MLB and its players cannot even agree on how the two sides ended up in this spot: Union leaders do not believe team owners are negotiating in good faith and continue to express frustration that MLB cited urgency as a reason for initiating a lockout and then waited 43 days to offer a proposal and restart negotiations.

MLB representatives, on the other hand, argue they have made proposals addressing the players’ stated goals — goals all-star pitcher Max Scherzer, a member of the union’s executive subcommittee, outlined on Twitter on Friday afternoon as “a system where threshold and penalties don’t function as caps, allows younger players to realize more of their market value, makes service-time manipulation a thing of the past, and eliminate[s] tanking as a winning strategy.”

“We don’t need mediation because what we are offering to MLB is fair to both sides,” Scherzer tweeted.

MLB argues it has met those demands by agreeing to a draft lottery to limit the benefits of losing, offering a framework with which to combat service time manipulation and agreeing to a bonus pool that would reward top performers with less than three years of service time above the minimum salaries they would otherwise earn.

But even with the agreed-upon frameworks, the sides remain far apart. The union, for example, thinks the bonus pool to be distributed to high-achieving young players should consist of $100 million. The owners are asking for $10 million. The union wants a draft in which the team with the most losses is guaranteed only one of the top nine picks so that full-fledged tanking brings no promise of significant draft benefits. The owners believe the worst team should be guaranteed a slot in the top four.

And those frameworks do not address the issue that has always been at the heart of baseball’s labor negotiations: the competitive balance tax, by which teams are taxed overage fees based on the amount of money they spend on salaries above a preestablished threshold.

The union has long argued that the competitive balance tax acts as a salary cap. MLB has long argued the players have the best deal in sports because they don’t have a hard salary cap. In these negotiations, MLB has proposed an increase in that threshold it believes is in keeping with historical norms — a lift from last year’s number of $210 million to $214 million.

The players union — citing years of collective bargaining agreements it believes tilted the rules in the team owners’ favor and years of increasing revenue — has proposed that number jump to $245 million.

The result is that by Friday afternoon, the two sides were no closer to a deal with no set plans to talk about one again. The players’ union is waiting for that counterproposal from MLB, which has not yet indicated when it might be arriving. And another day has passed without negotiations, the 61st time that has happened in the past 65 days.

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