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Striking Workers Have Mixed Feelings About Baseball Strike

September 3, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Linda Geiszler and Bobby Bonilla have something in common. Both walked off their jobs in much publicized strikes.

But the two share few other similarities. Geiszler, a Woodbridge, Calif., grandmother, worked in relative obscurity grading walnuts for $9.82 an hour before she walked off her job three years ago. Bonilla was pulling down $5.7 million this year as third baseman for the New York Mets when he and other players began a walkout three weeks ago.

Geiszler sees parallels, but has little sympathy for the striking players, who on Opening Day earned an average $1.19 million a year.

″Everybody has a right to make as much money as they can,″ said Geiszler, who has struggled to make ends meet since the Teamsters Union struck Diamond Walnut Growers three years ago Sunday. ″But when you make $1.2 million a year, I really don’t feel sorry for them a bit.″

Randy Morrell of Decatur, Ill., is a baseball fan.

He used to root for the New York Yankees, but says he now tries ″to be neutral and stay out of trouble.″ His wife is a Chicago Cubs fan, his parents support the St. Louis Cardinals, and his son likes the Philadelphia Phillies.

Morrell was one of 13,400 members of the United Auto Workers who walked off their jobs June 20 at Caterpillar plants in Illinois, Colorado and Pennsylvania in an angry dispute that is the latest turn in one of the nation’s longest, stormiest labor conflicts.

The father of four is more supportive of players than Geiszler.

″I don’t agree with everything that the baseball players want, but a lot of it is principle,″ said Morrell, who earned $18 an hour building engines that power giant earth-movers. ″I think what they’re trying to do is reform the relationship between the players and the owners.″

As the baseball strike drags on, chances of completing the 1994 season are diminishing. Federal mediators failed last week to get the two sides back to the bargaining table and each side was promising not to give in.

There is a parallel between the baseball strike and walkouts in industrial America, said Arthur Johnson, a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

″Either way, we’re talking about a collective bargaining system,″ he said. ″There is a common link.″

Bonilla is baseball’s highest-paid player this season, followed by Chicago White Sox pitcher Jack McDowell at $5.3 million. Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens and Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Roberto Alomar are next with base salaries of $5 million apiece.

In 1985, Geiszler earned $13.85 cents an hour operating a laser machine that looked for perfect, top-grade walnuts. She and other Diamond workers gave back part of their wages to help save the cooperative from financial ruin.

By 1991 the growers were again turning a profit, but offered workers 10- cent-an-hour raises and asked employees to pay $30 a month of their health insurance premiums.

The union struck. And Diamond replaced the workers.

In June, the union’s strike fund went broke, cutting off the $200 a week in strike benefits that Geiszler had been receiving.

″It’s heartbreaking,″ she said.

Geiszler and her firefighter husband own a modest home and two cars. ″We were middle class. But I don’t consider myself in the middle class any more.″

The Caterpillar strike has ripped apart Decatur, a city of 85,000 people in the heartland of Illinois.

″We’ve been on strike before, but never like this,″ said Morrell, who has spent 28 of his 47 years working for the world’s largest manufacturer of earth-moving equipment.

″I know there have been other baseball strikes and I have probably chimed in with a lot of people asking what do those guys want,″ he said. ″But this time around, I’ve been paying a little more attention to what it’s about.″

Traditional labor unions have thrown their support behind the players. But many fans are angry with both sides.

″People probably see each side as greedy,″ Johnson said. ″The average person can’t identify with a baseball player and his salary. But we are talking about an elite group of workers who are the best at what they do. And they have relatively short careers compared to other types of workers.″

Jordan Kern of New York is leading a fan revolt. His organization, Sports Fans United, has received more than 15,000 calls to its toll-free telephone hotline from enraged fans who want their game back.

How can he raise such a fuss over a game when people like Geiszler and Morrell are fighting for their livelihoods?

″Those issues are a lot more important than baseball,″ he said. ″But baseball is a big part of people’s lives and they will pour out a lot of emotion over it.″

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