Richie Phillips was the highly-controversial head of the Major League Umpires Association from 1978 to 1999, when the union was decertified as the result of a disastrous bargaining strategy which he advocated.
Born in Philadelphia, PA and the son of a police officer, he never completed high school but attended Villanova University on a football scholarship and was able to earn a law degree. Phillips became an attorney and worked as a prosecutor for the city under District Attorney and future Senator Arlen Specter, then became involved in labor law. He was hired to head the the Umpires' union in 1978. He immediately organized a strike that season which lasted one day and gained the union acceptance as the umpires' official bargaining unit. In 1979, he struck a big blow, having the umpires walk out on Opening Day in search of better pay and working conditions. Major League Baseball hired minor league and amateur umpires to act as replacements. At first, these had public sympathy, until it became clear that they were significantly inferior to the regular umpires. With the fans clamoring for the return of the striking umpires, MLB made a number of important concessions to settle the strike after six weeks.
Phillips' style was boisterous and highly confrontational. He dictated that the umpires treat the handful of minor league umpires promoted during the 1979 strike and kept on staff after its settlement as scabs, making life hellish for them both on and off the field. As a result most of them resigned within a few years. He chose to strike at the most crucial moments to advance the umpires' cause, angering fans and undermining much of the public sympathy which umpires had gained. For example, they struck at the start of the 1984 Postseason, forcing MLB to play the games with retired umpires and amateurs. In 1995, just as MLB had settled the devastating players strike that had cost it the 1994 Postseason, he had the umpires strike on Opening Day. However, overall, the umpires made significant gains: when he took over, they were badly exploited and had terrible working conditions, but by the end of the 1990s, they were highly-paid professionals who could make umpiring a full-time career.
However, Phillips overplayed his hand in 1999. In an effort to win more concessions, he convinced umpires to resign en masse on September 2nd, in order to throw Major League Baseball into a crisis and force it to negotiate with a figurative gun to its head. A number of members contested the strategy and refused to sign the letters, but the majority did. However, MLB stunned the union by accepting all of the resignations, then picked and chose which umpires it wanted to hire back on an individual basis, filling up the ranks with minor league umpires. 22 umpires were left out of a job. This situation brought underlying tensions within the union to a head, with a faction led by veteran umpires John Hirschbeck and Joe Brinkman, unhappy with the confrontational strategies favored by Phillips, seizing the occasion to form a competing union. The dissidents then forced a decertification vote on November 30th, which they won 57 to 35. On February 24, 2000, the rival World Umpires Association was recognized as the legal bargaining unit by the National Labor Relations Board.
Phillips' reign was over, but it took a while for the dust to settle. Phillips sued Commissioner Bud Selig, while 13 umpires sued Phillips for breach of fiduciary duty and malpractice. These lawsuits threatened to derail a settlement between the 22 umpires and Major League Baseball. As a result, umpires were re-hired piecemeal, with the issue dragging into the mid-2000s.
Before his work in baseball, Phillips had helped form the National Association of Basketball Referees, but was dismissed in 1984 when the referees found his compensation demands excessive and poorly justified. There were also allegations of financial improprieties in the Umpires Association in 1985, at a time when he had sole control over the union's finances. A Federal Investigation was held as the result of a denunciation by umpire Jerry Dale, but it did not lead to charges, as the federal attorney investigating the case recommended an indictment but was overruled.
- James C. McKinley Jr.: "Baseball: Man who united umpires now divides their strength", The New York Times, August 5, 1999