The Umpire Strikes Back (And Out)

You would think that employees whose profession requires them to make quick, emphatic decisions on the basis of extensive and arcane rules would have a leg up in a workplace dispute.

But Major League Baseball umpires – those often colorful individuals responsible for calling strikes, balls and outs, among other rulings – have committed a string of bungled negotiations in their recent labor spat, according to two Wharton management experts.

The umpire saga, which began in mid-July, is a "tough public relations battle between two groups who are not particularly liked: baseball owners and umpires," says Peter Cappelli, director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources and author of The New Deal at Work: Managing the Market-Driven Workforce published this year by Harvard Business School Press. "The owners apparently won this one quite easily. The umpires just made miscalculation after miscalculation."

With their no-strike contract ending on December 31, the majority of the umpires, on the advice of union negotiator Richie Phillips, made a preemptive bargaining move last month by submitting their resignations effective September 2. The umpires figured that by quitting just before the all-important playoffs (which begin in October), it would pressure the owners into signing a new deal long before December.

The baseball owners responded to the resignations, however, by hiring minor-league umpires to replace the major-league ones. Several of the umpires then rescinded their resignations.

On July 26, the union asked a Philadelphia U.S. District Court judge for a temporary restraining order that would prevent the owners from hiring new umpires. When the judge denied this request (a hearing on the case will be scheduled after August 12), the rest of the umpires who had submitted resignations took them back as well. But the owners, now clearly in control of the dispute, began choosing which umpires to reinstate and which to let go.

G. Richard Shell, chairman of the legal studies department and author of Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People, published this year by Viking/Penguin Press, says the umpires made one horrible negotiating mistake after another – a tactical nightmare.

"First, they followed a leader (Phillips) who has an agenda of his own," says Shell. Media reports have characterized Phillips as a publicity-seeker who is using the umpires union to promote himself.

"Number two, the umpires themselves were divided. If you only have 60-some members and you can’t present a united front, people won’t take you seriously. At UPS several years ago, the union managed to keep 120,000 drivers together to strike for a month. It was impressive.

"Third, the umpires used a self-destructive commitment tactic," Shell adds, referring to the mass resignations. "They put their feet on the accelerator and threw away the steering wheel. Many negotiators suffer from over-confidence bias. In this case the umpires wrongly believed that the public would rally to their support against the evil owners. The umpires had this collective delusion that they were essential to the game."

Cappelli points out that many labor negotiations take place mostly out of the public eye, or at least without public opinion meaning very much. But sports and public-employee union negotiations tend to be different than most, and more like each other.

"In this kind of conflict, you are in part hoping that the fans will put pressure on the owners, much like public-sector unions hope taxpayers squeeze the politicians into settling," said Cappelli. "But I guess that tactic hasn’t worked well in the public sector lately, where the elected officials have been willing to paint the unions as bad guys. In the umpires’ case, the owners aren’t exactly a loved group. But it’s now easier for them to win the public relations battle with the fans, since the umpires look like the ones who are walking out."

Cappelli and Shell note that the situation involving the umpires parallels in some ways the air controllers walkout at the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Reagan fired the striking air controllers and replaced them with non-union members. "Both the umpires and air controllers thought the world couldn’t live without them and they also miscalculated the other parties’ resolve," says Shell. "The difference is that the air controllers actually did something useful. The umpires are a sideshow in an entertainment."

Shell says that negotiating in public is clearly a two-edged sword that has, in effect, sliced the umpires’ figurative jugular.

"Using the media is often a commitment tactic. In this case the umpires wanted to make sure everyone knew what they were doing, but it clearly backfired. Most of the time, if you are using the media, you float a proposal that requires some degree of public support and wait and see what the reaction is before you make another move. You have to be sure of support if you make a commitment like the umpires did. They grossly miscalculated.

"Now, let’s say the umpires and owners get around to wanting to settle things," Shell adds. "The first thing that most skilled negotiations do is shut out the media and engage in real bargaining. Although the media are still interested in the story, you no longer want them to play a role, so both sides make a commitment to shut up. It is in everyone’s interest then to stop the stage performance."

Shell and Cappelli point out that, to be sure, sports labor negotiations are often in the media because almost all of those involved want to have their names mentioned. After all, players generally love publicity, while owners often buy teams so that they (the owners) can be more famous than they were in their other businesses.

"In a lot of ways, it’s entertainment about entertainment," said Shell. "The press keeps score and it is entertaining to watch them battle it out. Negotiations in the transportation or public sectors – like airline strikes and teacher walkouts – are not the same thing. The public really suffers in those situations and the stakes are higher."

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