The players couldn’t pay their mortgages. Rent was overdue. Some were forced to return to Spain. Yet, they continued to walk the picket line.
The summer heat in Miami was brutal. Afternoon showers were drenching. Yet, they continued to walk the picket line.
The strike had now stretched beyond the 2-year mark. There had been a flurry of court cases. ULP (Unfair Labor Practice) cases being filed by both sides. The National Labor Relations Board consistently ruled against the companies.
I remember sitting in a federal courtroom watching World Jai-Alai’s amazing attorney, William Cagney, argue what we considered a slam dunk case against the players remaining in this country with their H-1 work visa. The companies argued that picketing players were no longer working and their visas should be revoked. This would force them from the picket lines and their only option was to return to the Basque country. The federal judge ruled against us. The players were allowed to stay.
All the frontons had taken a drastic financial hit during the two years of the player strike. While the “replacement players” helped fill the rosters so the Jai-Alai seasons could continue, they were not even close to the caliber of play fans were used to seeing. Very few players actually gave up and came back to play. Both sides were completely dug in.
World Jai-Alai still had a very large debt, almost $20 million. Prior to the strike, there was no problem paying the principle and interest. Now, we were bleeding money.
Dick Donovan, our CEO, was constantly fighting off the banks. But, there was little they could do. The bankers knew nothing about running a Jai-Alai business, especially one in the midst of a crippling labor dispute. Many times Donovan will tell the loan officer, “Here’s the keys.” Of course, the banker never took them. So, things languished on.
The major issues never changed. The initial issue: the players wanted an association, a union. They wanted to be able to truly negotiate contracts, playing conditions, and prize money. Of course, owners did not want to give up any power. It was your typical management versus worker labor dispute.
First, there were the arrests for violence on the picket line. Then, you had replacement players, back pay, and unfair labor practice charges (ULP). Things got more complicated as time went on.
Eastern Airlines, based in Miami five minutes from the fronton, had their own labor issues. The Machinists Union went on strike. Airline executives expressed warnings the airline could go out of business. Our players were told the same things. Neither would give in.
Donovan swore he would never take back any player that was violent on the picket line. He, also, vowed he would not fire the replacement players or those loyal to the company, even if the strike was over.
Riki Lasa, president of IJAPA, (International Jai-Alai Players Association which was led by the UAW) refused to end the strike unless ALL players were reinstated. Also, they demanded “scabs” (Replacement Players) must be fired when they returned.
It was a classic stalemate. Stubborn owners. Headstrong athletes. Financial ruin for all. Then, one day in October of 1990, both sides came to a compromise… one that could have been and should have been reached in the first two weeks of the strike.
The companies agreed to recognize IJAPA as the player’s union. The union would drop all ULP litigation against the companies. There was no guarantee of back pay. Each company would deal with that individually. The players would get their jobs back and replacement players could stay.
Donovan, who later told me he had met privately with Riki Lasa to resolve the strike two weeks after they had begun picketing, was the last to concede. He did not want to bring back one particular Miami player who had been arrested. Lasa had told him in that early part of the strike that the players were united… all came back or none. After the longest sports strike in history, Donovan finally compromised on that issue, including that one player. It was finally over.
When all the frontons announced the return of their regular players, including the striking stars, it was assumed the fans would again flood the frontons. After a flurry of publicity, heavy advertising and promotional campaigns, we anxiously awaited the hoards to return, especially to Miami, Dania, and Tampa. They didn’t come back. Business only ticked up slightly from the current numbers. We knew we were in trouble.
Our hope was the fans still weren’t aware that the strike was over. This was wishful thinking. In 1990, we were now facing video lottery machines (slots) at the Native-American “casinos.” The cruise ships to “nowhere” were featuring a full casino experience. The Florida Lottery was spending millions of dollars on promotion and advertising against us. During the strike, the fans just found other options for gambling.
I now came to the realization that my wonderful career could soon be over. How long could Donovan hold off the banks? Was bankruptcy a viable option for World Jai-Alai? Would the Wheeler family, who still owned World, want to continue in this dying enterprise?
Then, one day, a series of events would put into motion a possible opportunity for me to leave World Jai-Alai, yet still stay at World Jai-Alai. This could be the biggest gamble of my life.