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Eulogy for Richie Phillips

Richard Gregory (“Richie”) Phillips, former general counsel and executive director of the MLUA (Major League Umpires Association) from 1978 to 1999, died May 31, 2013. He was 72. To describe Phillips as a “hard-nosed negotiator” doesn’t really do him justice. His extremely confrontational style and relentless determination (a combination of Bobby Knight, Jimmy Hoffa and Marvin Miller) were legendary.

Richie Phillips will be remembered for two things, one good, one horrendously bad.

(1) During his 22 years as executive director, major league umpires went from a group of underappreciated and undercompensated “adjuncts,” to a highly organized and universally envied cadre of sports professionals. With Phillips at the helm, the umpires’ salaries quadrupled.

(2) One of Phillips’ tactical moves backfired so badly, it resulted in the ruination of the very union he helped transform.

In 1999, Phillips tried running an astoundingly brazen play on major league baseball. Knowing it was illegal to use a strike as a negotiating tool (there was a contract in place with an unequivocal “no strike” provision), he got the umpires to agree to resign from their jobs en masse, convincing them that the League would be unable to replace them on short notice, and would balk at having to cough up $15 million in severance pay.

It was an audacious and nutty move. Unfortunately, management called his bluff. The League responded to the mass resignations by instantly hiring minor league umps to replace the major leaguers. Predictably, many of the umpires who, in the heat of battle, had signed letters of resignation now regretted their decision. Some even claimed to have signed them as a “symbolic gesture,” after being assured they would never be delivered.

Accordingly, these umpires contacted the League office and formally requested that their resignations be withdrawn. The League refused. These umpires were told that, even if their letters had been submitted impulsively or on the basis of inaccurate information, a resignation was a resignation. Sorry, boys, but you no longer have a job.

One can imagine the fallout. All hell broke loose. A group of umpires, led by Joe Brinkman and John Hirschbeck, began an NLRB decertification drive that resulted in Phillips being fired, and the formation of another union (the World Umpires Association) to replace the MLUA. While many of the umps were eventually rehired, 22 of them (those viewed as trouble-makers or misfits) never got their jobs back. Their careers were over.

You occasionally hear Richie Phillips’ name linked to that of Robert Poli, the hapless president of the air-traffic controllers union (PATCO), whom President Reagan summarily fired in 1981. While that comparison may seem appropriate (because both guys managed to get their rank-the-file members fired), it is not. The comparison is not only inappropriate, it’s ridiculous.

Phillips was a seasoned pro with an impressive list of accomplishments to his credit, and Poli was an untested rookie, in office for barely a year, with nothing more to brag about than having won a union election. And while Phillips’ resignation stunt was, without question, a monumental blunder, what Poli did by taking federal workers out on an illegal strike (in clear violation of their contract) was immeasurably worse.

Robert Poli not only committed institutional suicide by handing Ronald Reagan on a silver platter the ironclad legal grounds for destroying a labor union, he managed to awaken and refocus America’s dormant anti-union sentiment, something that organized labor is still paying for, thirty years later.

So rest in peace, Richie. Even though you screwed everything up in the end, you did it with the best of intentions and with your inimitable style and flair. Disgraced hero or not, the American labor movement could use a hundred more leaders just like you.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” 2nd edition), was a former union rep.  Dmacaray@earthlink.net

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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