The rarely used lines of communications between organized labor and the Reagan Administration will undoubtedly be fairly cordial and open under William E. Brock, whom President Reagan nominated last week as secretary of labor.
But while labor leaders and the new secretary, who is expected to easily win Senate confirmation, have communicated well in the past and will probably continue to do so, the Brock appointment will not result in any fundamental change in the deeply antagonistic relations between unions and the Administration.
News stories about the appointment stressed compliments to Brock from the labor sector. AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, for example, said that Brock has "earned our respect" and that "we look forward to a new and constructive relationship with the Labor Department."
But Brock has philosophical differences with union leaders that are almost as strong as those of his predecessor, Raymond J. Donovan, who shares his conservative Republican views.
However, unlike some of the more conservative members of the Reagan Administration, Brock is not an ideologue. In his many years in Washington as representative, senator and special trade representative, Brock has earned a reputation as a very conservative "good guy." As a result, he doesn't irritate union leaders and can accept, with seeming equanimity, frequent mutual disagreements.
Brock listens to union leaders, usually responding calmly and, when appropriate, with humor. Almost without exception, union leaders who know him say that he grasps complex issues quickly and even agrees with a labor position or two.
Many labor leaders, including Kirkland, could barely tolerate Donovan, with whom they frequently quarreled and whose integrity was challenged from the day he was nominated. Thus, Brock's appointment came as a relief to them even though he is a strong supporter of Reagan, the most anti-union President in modern times.
Privately, however, many union leaders acknowledge that Brock's charm might make him more dangerous to labor than Donovan, who had so many enemies that he was an ineffective opponent.
There are no signs, for instance, that Brock will try to get the Administration to reverse its generally anti-union position on legislation or push for more funds to increase enforcement of labor laws. The department's proposed budget is $22.8 billion, 20% less than during Reagan's first year in office.
Nor is Brock expected to try to save such programs as the Job Corps, the last remnant of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society anti-poverty programs.
Also on its way out is the Trade Adjustment Act, set up to help workers who lost their jobs because of certain forms of foreign competition. Brock solidly backs the Administration in its basic fight against most restrictions on foreign trade.
Howard Samuels, head of the AFL-CIO industrial union department, said he has dealt with Brock on many occasions and is convinced that he "will be able to explain clearly our position to others in the White House, including the President, and that certainly will be an improvement over the Donovan years."
Samuels added that Brock, as Reagan's international trade negotiator for the last four years, has supported labor on a few issues involving foreign trade even though he has generally opposed unions' increasingly protectionist-minded actions.
But such support is rare for this Reagan loyalist. Basic Labor Department policies will continue to be set by people in the White House, including the President and White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, who must vividly recall the hard-line campaigns that labor waged against Reagan in 1980 and 1984.
Unionists have generally refrained from publicly criticizing Brock because, as one put it, "we don't need to start a fight with him even before he takes the job. And who knows? Perhaps we can get him to at least make some compromises with us on a few issues in the hope that in future years he can win a few unions over to the Republicans."
There are widespread expectations that Brock will run the department more efficiently than Donovan, who was largely an unknown in Washington, knew almost none of the union leaders personally and was plagued by scandal. Donovan resigned March 15, soon after a New York state Supreme Court judge ordered him to stand trial on charges of grand larceny and fraud. He had been indicted on charges of falsely stating the amount of payments to minority-controlled subcontractors by using phony equipment-lease arrangements.
Brock might have more success than Donovan, for instance, in pushing through Congress a sub-minimum wage for youth ($2.50 as opposed to the current $3.35). Brock and the Administration argue that a lower minimum wage would encourage greater employment of youths, while organized labor fears that it would cut the number of jobs for mature breadwinners.
In political terms, the Administration hopes that the Brock appointment will weaken the unity achieved by the AFL-CIO last year when all of its 96 unions joined, for the first time, in backing a presidential candidate before the primaries. An estimated 60% of unionists backed that choice--Walter F. Mondale--in the election.
Brock's non-belligerent approach, the Administration believes, could get union leaders to soften their own harsh, highly politicized attacks against the Administration. However, given Reagan's hard line against unions, probably even the cordial Brock will not win any converts among union leaders.
While Brock gets along personally with men such as Kirkland, there's little doubt about his conservatism. During Brock's four terms in the House and one in the Senate, the AFL-CIO approved of only 13% of his votes. By contrast, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said he was "right" from management's point of view 91% of the time.
Debate in Idaho
In January, unionists in Idaho waged bitter but vain opposition in the state Legislature to "right-to-work" legislation. The law was vetoed by the state's Democratic governor, John V. Evans, but the Legislature overrode that veto.
The union won a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of the law on grounds that, among other things, it was not, as the Legislature claimed, an "emergency measure." The Legislature has long been anti-union and has tried repeatedly to get right-to-work legislation past the governor.
Now, armed with a poll showing that only a slim majority of voters--52%--support the law, the 43,000-member Idaho state AFL-CIO has decided to try to get the measure on the ballot in November, 1986, with the hope that voters will reject it.
"We are confident now that, with a thorough educational campaign among voters, we can eliminate the law and keep Idaho from being the 21st state in the nation with such anti-labor legislation," said James Kerns, president of the state AFL-CIO.
Right-to-work laws prohibit any labor-management contract that requires all members of a bargaining unit in a company to join a union or pay a "fair share" fee for the cost of contract negotiations. The idea behind such requirements is that all workers, both union and non-union, get the same benefits of a union contract, so all should help bear the cost of negotiations.
After the Legislature overrode Evans' veto, some unionists argued that the issue should be put before the voters, but others feared that a popular vote might backfire, giving the measure final approval and hurting Democrats who, like Evans, had joined labor in fighting it.
In an effort to measure public sentiment, the union spent $25,000 on a survey. Buoyed by the results, the union hopes to win a permanent restraining order against the law. If the court upholds the legislature's notion that the law was an emergency measure, it will become effective immediately. No matter what the court decides, however, the union can still press to have the measure put to a popular vote next year.
Because the right-to-work issue has been debated since the early 1900s, it's difficult to see how the Legislature and the National Right to Work Committee will convince the court of the law's emergency nature.
Evans said he's "very hopeful" that the court will block the law and added that "we are now all united in our conviction that it can be defeated at the polls next year."
GM Pact Denounced
While the 35-year-old National Right to Work Committee spends most of its time and money battling unions and "labor bosses," Reed Larson, its founder and top leader, last week furiously denounced General Motors for its new agreement with the United Auto Workers, which has been widely praised in business and labor circles.
Both GM executives and union leaders hope that the tentative plans they disclosed in January for building the new Saturn small car will bring in a new era of industrial peace and prosperity for GM and its workers and that it can become a model for many other companies.
If it works, the plan could increase industrial democracy at GM by giving workers greater roles as decision makers instead of simply order takers.
But Larson sees nothing good in the plans. Not unexpectedly, he objects to the idea of a union shop contract that requires all workers to join the union.
Actually, there is no formal agreement between the union and company for a union shop at Saturn. But the company is not expected to resist unionization at Saturn, since almost all of its other workers already belong to the UAW.
However, Larson contends that the UAW and GM have already "cut a deal that forces unknown Saturn workers to accept the union as their exclusive bargaining agency."
And the reason for this business-labor cooperation, he says, is that, "representing an increasingly isolated minority coalition, union officials have become even more militant in seeking new arenas of coercive influences in corporate board rooms, investment decisions and hiring policies."
Union and management leaders at GM may call labor's push for a greater voice in corporate decisions " 'labor peace' but, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, we call it war against workers," Larson concluded.
Far from being that, however, the plans actually reflect a trend in the opposite direction: away from adversary relationships between workers and management and toward greater democracy in the workplace.