Minor League Umpires Walk Out
Men in blue on strike over salary issues
By J.J. Cooper
April 4, 2006
When minor league Opening Day arrives on Thursday, replacement umpires will be behind the plate and working the bases after minor league umpires did not make their reporting dates--a move that was expected after negotiations for a new labor deal reached an impasse last month.
The Association of Minor League Umpires is now officially on strike, after the union and the Professional Baseball Umpires Corporation--the subsidiary of Minor League Baseball that manages minor league umpires--were unable to work out a new contract.
"Our membership has prepared themselves very well for the worst-case scenario," union president Andy Roberts said last week. "Their offseason jobs for many of them pay more than what they make in spring training and during the regular season. I have complete confidence in the solidarity of our group and the unity of our group. We're well communicated, well prepared and well advised."
Calls to both Roberts and George Yund, the attorney leading the negotiations for PBUC, were not immediately returned on Tuesday.
Tuesday was the first day that umpires were required to report in some leagues, making it officially the first day of the strike. Officials with the International and Texas leagues, which had April 4 reporting dates, confirmed that their umpires did not report. Southern League officials said they have already been informed that their umpires will not report on April 5. A couple of other leagues said they were still hoping for the possibility of umpires reporting, while making back-up plans in case they do not.
"We knew that this could happen. We were hoping it wouldn't, but we knew it was a possibility," Carolina League president John Hopkins said. "It has been additional work, although not as difficult as maybe I expected. We feel good about Plan A or Plan B."
The union is asking for raises in salary and per diem payments, along with improvements in travel, insurance and umpire safety. Management has offered a $100 a month raise and a $1 a day increase to the per diem, though the deductible for health insurance would rise from $100 to $500 a year as well. Minor League Baseball has said it has made its best and final offer to the umpires, and will not negotiate further.
The negotiations have gone on throughout the offseason, giving leagues plenty of time to work on assembling rosters of replacement umpires, although it did lead to a busy last month leading up to the season. League presidents around the minors said they have umpires lined up to work games. Most of the spots will be filled with college or former pro umpires.
"We're going to have umpires and that's what we need," Texas League president Tom Kayser said. "The level at which they officiate will be the level for both sides, and we'll get along.
"It's going to range from ex-pro umpires down to college and junior college umpires depending on availability on the weekends."
Fans will be able to judge the caliber of umpiring beginning Thursday, but several league presidents said they're confident the games will go on with few problems.
"I don't have any concerns," Hopkins said. "I'm not so naïve to think there won't be a period of adjustment, but there are lot of people out there who have been umpiring amateur games for decades."
Florida State League president Chuck Murphy said, "I don't think being in Florida I'm too concerned about it, because we have a lot of retired umpires. Word out of spring training was the umpiring was very good."
The minor league umpires opted to not work spring training games, even though they are not part of the umpires' deal with PBUC. Without minor league umpires, some minor league spring training games were played without umpires, with coaches or players filling in.
The umpires' previous five-year agreement ended after last season. Management's position is that minor league umpires are serving, in essence, a paid internship to potentially become major league umpires, though few minor league umpires ever reach the majors.
As part of that approach, there are rules for umpires to be released if they do not advance after two years at their current level. As part of the last negotiated contract, PBUC has increased evaluations to tell umpires more quickly whether they have major league potential.
"Some of the people in the umpires ranks seem to think it ought to be a year-round, lifetime career," Yund said in March. "Five years ago (during the last round of labor negotiations) the leadership of the umpires union came to the bargaining table and said, 'If we aren't going to make it, we need to know as soon as possible.' Now they've done a 180, saying they want more time guaranteed at each level. And they want to be paid like it's a year-round job."
Umpires' salaries range from $5,500 a year in the Rookie leagues to $15,000 a year in Triple-A. Roberts and the union have said they want to see greater raises, and perhaps more importantly, increases throughout the life of the four-year contract to keep up with inflation.
Now that they are on strike, the umpires could be permanently replaced. In the past, Yund has also said that the strike could lead to the elimination of the system where all major league umpire hirings come from the minor leagues.
"Strikers can be permanently replaced. We're not saying that definitely will happen, but we aren't saying that it won't," Yund said. "The system where minor league umpires are the only ones hired as major league umpires may not survive a strike."