06/09/2013 02:07 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2013

Death of a Union Firebrand

Richard Gregory ("Richie") Phillips, the executive director of the MLUA (Major League Umpires Association) from 1978 to 1999, died on Friday, May 31, 2013. He was 72. To say Phillips (a Philadelphia lawyer) was a hard-nosed negotiator would be the understatement of the century. He was a mixture of Jimmy Hoffa, Roy Cohn and Marvin Miller, marinated in the juice of Bobby Knight.

Phillips will be remembered for two things:

1) During his 22 years as exec director, the umpires went from a collection of underappreciated and undercompensated "adjuncts" to a tightly knit group of sports professionals whose salaries quadrupled and whose benefits exploded.

2) A monumental tactical blunder not only backfired badly, it resulted in the ruin of nearly two dozen umpires and the dissolution of the very union he helped transform.

In 1999, Phillips tried something astoundingly bold and nutty. Knowing it was illegal to use a strike as a negotiating tool (there was a binding contract in place which included an ironclad "no strike" provision), he got the umpires to resign en masse from their jobs, having convinced them that the League would panic at being unable to replace them on short notice, and would do almost anything to avoid having to cough up $15 million in severance pay.

But the League called their bluff. They immediately brought up minor league umps to replace the major leaguers. And although many of the 50-plus (of 68) umpires who had, in the heat of battle, signed those letters of resignation instantly regretted their decision and tried to rescind them, the League stubbornly refused to let them. The League told the players that, whether done impulsively or not, a resignation is a resignation. These guys were now officially out of a job.

The upshot of this mess was that a group of Phillips-haters, led by umpires Joe Brinkman and John Hirschbeck, began a decertification drive that resulted in Phillips being fired and another union (the World Umpires Association) being formed to replace the MLUA. The World Umpires Association still represents major league umpires. While many of the mutineers were eventually rehired, 22 of them (those viewed as trouble-makers or misfits) never got their jobs back.

One still occasionally hears Richie Phillips' name linked to that of Robert Poli, the 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. It's not only inappropriate, it's ridiculous.

For one thing, Phillips was a seasoned pro; Poli was an untested rookie, having been in office barely a year. He was as green as grass. For another, while Phillips had a long list of impressive accomplishments, the only thing Poli could brag about was that he'd won an election. And for another, while Phillips' mass resignation was a blunder, what Poli did by taking federal workers out on an illegal strike (in violation of their contract) was a disaster. He handed Ronald Reagan on a silver platter the means of destroying a labor union.

Let's be clear about what Phillips did for and to the umpires. What he did for them was single-handedly turn major league umpires into the gold standard of sports officiating, both enriching them monetarily and guaranteeing them the right to work with dignity. What he did to them was lead them over a cliff. And they followed him over the edge because he had their utter trust and confidence.

Phillips' tactical error was your classic case of a cock-sure, perhaps even arrogant, operator overplaying his hand. But what Poli did with PATCO was immeasurably worse because he not only committed institutional suicide, he managed to sharpen and refocus America's long-dormant anti-union sentiment, something that organized labor is still paying for today.

So rest in peace, Richie. Even though you screwed everything up in the end, you gave it all you had, and you did it with style. The American labor movement could use a hundred more guys 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.