Millionaire pickets in to bat

PITY the workers. All they earn, on average, is dollars 1.2m a year and now the bosses are trying to put a limit on rises. Pity the bosses, too. Exempt from America's ferocious anti- trust laws, they have no pesky rules of competition to hinder their quest for profits. With both sides in such pain, no wonder they are at each other's throats.

This is the setting for what seems likely to be America's most bitter - and most talked- about - industrial conflict of the summer. Baseball, the national pastime, is on the precipice of a strike that could wipe out the latter part of the season, not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars in gate earnings and recently negotiated TV contracts.

It is a dispute not without a dash of the surreal. How many other industries have a minimum wage of dollars 109,000 ( pounds 72,000)? And what kind of business owner can plead poverty when a team like the Baltimore Orioles can be sold for as much as dollars 173m, as it was a year ago? And yet it is a worker-management confrontation almost in the old style. While most unions wither, the baseball players' union is one of the strongest in the country.

It is that unity combined with the apparent determination of the major league owners to impose their will that augurs a long and bloody battle. This is the eighth confrontation between the two sides in 22 years and in the past it has always been the owners that have backed down. The last strike of any length was in 1981, when fans were deprived of play for 50 days. Some say a strike could run into the 1995 season.

The collective bargaining proposal unveiled by the owners last week seeks for the first time to put a cap on what players can earn. The formula aims to limit the amount paid to players to 50 per cent of the revenue earned by each club, down from the 58 per cent spent on salaries now.

Other provisions include ending the use of outside arbitration when players and owners disagree on salaries or free agency rights (the opportunity for players to put themselves up for bidding between clubs).

The owners say some control has to be exerted on player earnings. You can see their point. The average salary of a major league player has exploded from dollars 44,676 in 1975 to dollars 1.2m. Last year there were 262 players earning more than dollars 1m a year, including seven on more than dollars 5m.

Nor is it fair simply to look at the most profitable clubs like the Orioles. Installed two seasons ago in its Camden Yard stadium, built at a cost of dollars 100m, it would do all right in a money-printing competition with the US Treasury. But according to the owners' books, 19 of the 28 major league clubs are losing between dollars 3m and dollars 12m a year. These include teams such as the Seattle Mariners, which has a smaller market from which to draw fans.

But the players have no intention of surrendering the gains of two decades. They know they have the leverage. By calling a strike at the start of August, they would be denying the owners revenue at the most lucrative juncture of the season - just when network TV contracts are kicking in and league competition is approaching the play-offs.

And they have little sympathy for the owners, particularly given their insulation from competition. With their anti-trust exemption, the owners have complete control of the sport. No new teams can set up without their say-so. And rarely is that given. Two franchises were created two years ago, but were auctioned off at a huge dollars 95m each.

For the fans, sympathy with either side is difficult. Paul White, columnist for Baseball Weekly, voiced the feelings of many when he said a strike seemed unavoidable and added: 'It's not that I don't care. It's just that the sides of my head are sore. When I do allow myself to consider the baseball labour situation, I just whack my hands against my temples and mutter: 'This is so stupid'. Are these people idiots?'

If there is a public bias, it is probably in favour of the owners. Baseball is not the blue- collar sport it once was. Those warming the seats at Camden Yard this weekend are more likely to be Washington lawyers than line workers from what remains of industrial Baltimore. The cheers as the players take the field may be more muted than usual.

Bailey Morris is away.

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