Has Baseball Found Its Cleanup Man?

If anyone can solve the Major League Baseball strike, it just might be William J. Usery Jr., the legendary negotiator called in by the Clinton Administration in mid-October. The wily, 70-year-old ex-Labor Secretary has resolved plenty of other stormy conflicts, including a 1990 walkout at Pittston Corp. and last year's coal strike. "If there's a deal both sides can agree on, he'll help them find it," says Pittston Chief Executive Joseph C. Farrell. Adds Steven Schlossberg, a former official with the International Labor Organization: "It's a rare person who can be paid by the employer, as Usery is in most cases, and be trusted by the union."

What's Usery's plan? No baseball expert (but a devoted Atlanta Braves fan), he has spent most of his time so far getting to know the owners' and players' reps, as well as the issues. He called an initial meeting with both sides on Oct. 19 to discuss how to get the negotiations going again and since then has met separately with each side. Joint sessions are likely to start in early November. Management, at least, is optimistic that he can forge a compromise. "No one goes through two months of a strike without saying, `Gee, the assumptions I made when I started have changed, and I need to look again,"' says Charles O'Connor, the owners' chief outside lawyer. "Usery has the experience to identify the common ground between us."

What kind of guy did Clinton choose to save the national pastime? Raised in Milledgeville, Ga., by blue-collar parents, Usery never graduated from college. He joined the International Association of Machinists (IAM) almost by accident during an organizing drive at Armstrong Corp. He worked his way up the union and gained national attention in the early 1960s by negotiating pacts for IAM mechanics at Cape Canaveral. In 1969, he was asked to join President Nixon's Labor Dept. and later headed its federal mediation service. In 1976, President Ford named Usery his Labor Secretary.

ORNERY. Since 1977, Usery has worked out of a small Washington office as a for-hire peacemaker. His method: Wear down both sides with talk. He'll regale negotiators with anecdotes of Ford-era Cabinet meetings one minute, then split them apart for separate talks. "I've seen him mad, yelling and screaming," says John F. Peterpaul, who until recently headed the IAM's airline unit. "He's human, ain't he? But he never does that when both parties are present, only when he's with you in private."

The Pittston talks show how ornery Usery can be. After a bloody nine-month strike over job security and retiree health care, he kept everyone going around the clock for five straight days, then broke for a day and went back for four more. "He can turn you off with his nonstop talk sometimes," says former National Mediation Board Chairman Walter Wallace. "Many times, I said to him, `Bill, cut the bull, let's get on with it.' But it's one of his techniques."

Of course, even Usery can't solve everything. He hasn't brought peace to Deere & Co., where management and the auto workers can't forge a new contract. And "the saddest day of my life" came, he says, when he failed to mediate a deal between Eastern Air Lines Inc. and its unions in 1986. The company was sold to labor's nemesis, Frank A. Lorenzo. Still, the incident demonstrated Usery's ability to stay on everyone's good side. Even though he continued to work for Lorenzo as Eastern's labor adviser, he remained in his former union's good graces, Peterpaul says.

To end the baseball strike, Usery first must get the teams' 28 squabbling owners to adopt a common position. "This is a dispute that cries out for responsible collective bargaining," Usery says. Players' reps say they remain skeptical that Usery can work any miracles. But there already are some hints that the owners may give ground. Richard Ravitch, the clubs' labor negotiator, says that owners may not unilaterally impose a salary cap right away, as they had been expected to do. Instead, he wants to see if Usery can produce a deal. "We thought that if we showed the union we must have an economic change, they'd come to us," says O'Connor. "The union thought owners would cave if we lost the World Series. Now we both have to reevaluate."

The sides remain far apart. But Usery tends to find hopeful signs in the tiniest openings. "I hear a `maybe' in every `no,"' he says. If the past is any indicator, once the bargaining gets down and dirty, Bill Usery will turn a few of those maybes into an accord that ends baseball's worst-ever imbroglio.

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