Collective bargaining talks on horizon

Collective bargaining talks on horizon

PHOENIX -- Collective bargaining for a new Basic Agreement will begin in the near future, said Major League Baseball's second-ranking official and the head of the MLB Players Association, who just finished his annual spring tour of the 30 clubs.

"There have been discussions about beginning bargaining that were interrupted for the World Baseball Classic," Bob DuPuy, MLB's president and chief operating officer, said on Tuesday. "I would expect the sides to meet to establish an initial timetable shortly."

The current agreement expires on Dec. 19 and both the union and owners have yet to show a sense of public urgency.

"I'd like to believe that for the first time in over 30 years we can get an agreement done without going to the deadline," said Don Fehr, the union's long-time executive director, after he met with the San Francisco Giants in Scottsdale on Monday.

DuPuy went a step further, saying that he'd be "disappointed if we didn't get this done well before the deadline."

Fehr, though, added this rejoinder: "I don't make predictions anymore. It certainly hasn't worked out that way in the other sports. They've all gone right to or past the deadline, which we did in 2002."

The 2002 talks in New York went right to the edge of a late-August deadline, but a contract was settled without a work stoppage for the first time since 1972. Players were held on their buses as they headed to airports or ballparks as the negotiations went through the night and ended near noon ET with an agreement.

The hot-button issues then were revenue sharing, competitive balance among the clubs, a competitive-balance tax on teams that exceeded an established player payroll limit, a landmark drug-testing agreement and contraction.

The sides compromised on all the issues and since then MLB's annual revenue has risen to $4.7 billion while the average player salary reached a record $2.6 million in 2005. There has been a different World Series champion in each of the four years of the agreement, including the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox, both winning for the first time since just after World War I.

In addition, the owners and union have partnered on such significant projects as the recently concluded World Baseball Classic and determining home-field advantage in the World Series by which league wins the All-Star Game.

The owners and the union renegotiated the Major League's drug policy twice and in the process lowered the incidence of positive tests among big-league players from 5-to-7 percent in 2003 to below one percent in 2005. This past winter's new policy, which extends to 2008 and was separated from the Basic Agreement, includes the harshest penalties ever for the use of performance-enhancing drugs: a 50-game suspension for a first positive test, 100 games for a second, and a lifetime ban with reinstatement appeal rights (after two years only) for a third.

Unlike every negotiation of the past, there are seemingly no overt issues.

Taken a step further, labor negotiators for both sides, who have battled for years on the issues, have developed an amicable relationship.

"We've worked very hard on our relationship with the players association," Rob Manfred, MLB's vice president of labor relations and its chief negotiator, said on Tuesday. "The economics of the sport are strong and the current agreement has worked very well. Those three things are good reason to be optimistic we can get a new agreement without a dispute."

Said Fehr: "It's true that we have developed a much more constant interaction between our two offices and we're doing a lot of other things together, whether it's charity work or whether it's the WBC and so on. What you hope that translates into is that you don't wind up in disputes by accident. That's the worst of all worlds."

Commissioner Bud Selig said this past January that the split of local revenue from team to team is again going to be a major point of negotiation this time around. And DuPuy added on Tuesday: "Since the steroid issue was resolved last year, I would expect the discussions to focus on revenue sharing and the competitive-balance tax."

Major League clubs now share 34 percent of local revenue. Two teams over the course of the current agreement have consistently exceeded the competitive-balance tax threshold: the New York Yankees and Red Sox, who are annually involved in a struggle to win the American League East.

Between the tax and revenue sharing last season, the Yankees alone paid nearly $100 million into MLB coffers. The Yanks and the Red Sox have stated that they are not in favor of further taxation or a higher percentage split of locally generated revenue.

Contraction, which was seriously considered after the 2001 season when the owners voted to fold two franchises, is no longer on the table. There is an April-to-June window this year in the current agreement for the owners to contract two teams without union approval.

Despite stadium issues in Minnesota, South Florida and Oakland, DuPuy said last month that contraction was a dead issue. And Selig has consistently said that the imminent sale of the Washington Nationals, who moved to the nation's capital from Montreal last season, is the "last residue" of contraction.

Thus, even when negotiations begin this year in earnest, they will be conducted, at least at the outset, behind the scenes.

"We like to keep them fairly low-keyed," Manfred said earlier this month during the Classic. "You're not going to see a lot of publicity."

Fehr, who has headed the union since late 1985, agreed.

"You don't want to have high-keyed negotiations unless you have to," he said. "Obviously, nobody would like it more than me with all the stuff I've been through over the last 30 years. It'd be great to get something done without any controversy. That's not our history, but there's a first time for everything."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.