President Reagan on Wednesday nominated William E. Brock III, his international trade negotiator for the last four years, to replace Raymond J. Donovan as secretary of labor.
Donovan, who was plagued by allegations of impropriety almost from his first days in office, resigned the Cabinet post Friday, only hours after a New York judge ordered him to stand trial on grand larceny and fraud charges. He had been on leave since his indictment last October.
Reagan, who had stormy relations with organized labor during Donovan's tenure, said of Brock: "Anyone who's spent four years dealing with international trade can negotiate with almost anybody."
Brock, a key figure in moderate Republican Party circles for many years, moved quickly to ease tensions with labor leaders, disclosing at a hastily called midday news conference with Reagan that he had called AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland shortly after accepting the job Wednesday morning.
Brock, who must be confirmed by the Senate before taking office, acknowledged that there have been "some very difficult times" between Reagan and the AFL-CIO, which threw its weight and money behind Democratic presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale last year. But he quickly added that Kirkland is an "old friend" and predicted that they will have no trouble working together.
Indeed, Reagan's choice was immediately welcomed by most labor leaders even as they took backhanded swipes at the Administration's policies.
Kirkland issued a statement saying that Brock "has earned our respect," adding: "We look forward to a new and constructive relationship with the Labor Department."
Gerald W. McEntee, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, praised the nominee for respecting the "vital role working people play in American society." He said it will be Brock's task to "rescue the Department of Labor from the second-rate status it has been consigned to by the Reagan Administration."
Reagan, in announcing his selection, said Brock "was our top choice from a blue-ribbon list of candidates."
Brock, who was actively promoted for the job by White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, was picked over Edward J. Rollins, the White House political adviser, and James C. Miller III, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, according to White House and Republican Party sources.
Working in Garden
Reagan, the sources said, decided on Brock at a meeting early Wednesday with Regan, Vice President George Bush, who supported Rollins, and departing top staff member Michael K. Deaver, who favored Miller. Reagan then phoned Brock, who said he was working in his garden at home when the call came.
Brock won out over the other candidates, a White House source said, largely because of his greater stature and because he was seen as better able to rebuild bridges to organized labor.
As late as Tuesday evening, Administration sources were saying that Brock was reluctant to accept the job. When asked about published reports based on such information, Reagan replied: "You just can't believe everything you read, can you?"
Brock, who was approached about the labor post by Regan during Reagan's trip to Canada on Sunday and Monday, said that he accepted because "the President is not only very persuasive, (but the job also) is a challenge that is impossible to resist."
According to one source, Brock "was immediately interested, but he was advised by his friends and colleagues to turn it down. I think his decision comes as a surprise to most people."
Brock, according to an Administration official, had recently persuaded Reagan to reject a plan by Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige to fold Brock's Cabinet-level office of U.S. trade representative into a new Department of Trade, presumably to be headed by Baldrige.
Brock's replacement in the trade post was not named but, ironically, both Baldrige and Lionel Olmer, the top trade official in the Commerce Department, are considered possible candidates to succeed him.
Du Pont, Conable Suggested
In addition, sources said, the White House is also interested in former Gov. Pierre S. du Pont IV of Delaware, Barber B. Conable Jr., who recently retired after 20 years in Congress representing a Rochester, N.Y., district, and Clayton K. Yeutter, a former assistant trade negotiator under President Gerald R. Ford.
Brock's nomination is expected to sail through the Senate. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, immediately backed Brock, saying he "has got a lot of free enterprise background and he knows all the key players."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the committee, issued a statement calling Brock a "solid choice."
Brock won support from some unexpected quarters also. Although he is widely regarded as a staunch opponent of trade protectionism, an officer of the United Auto Workers--which supports a bill to drastically restrict automobile imports--nonetheless called Brock "the best choice those guys could have come up with."
A top political operative with close ties to several unions noted that Brock was instrumental in persuading the Japanese government to impose "voluntary" restraints on automobile exports in 1981. Brock "is flexible on trade issues," he said, adding that, although the White House decided recently against asking the Japanese for a fifth year of auto quotas, last year Brock did persuade the Japanese to extend the restraints beyond their original three-year duration.
In answering questions from reporters, Brock said the job of secretary of labor does not involve "just organized labor." One of his primary goals will be to create job opportunities for young persons, particularly black youths who have very high unemployment rates, he said.
Last year the Administration proposed that employers be allowed to pay teen-agers $2.50 an hour, 85 cents less than the minimum wage, as a way to create new jobs. The AFL-CIO successfully opposed the legislation in Congress.