A heated debate over a landmark labor case before the Supreme Court apparently has pitted a strongly held view of President Reagan against the equally strong view of his solicitor general, Charles Fried, the third-ranking official in the Justice Department.
Fried shocked his fellow conservatives recently when he filed a brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of the government, supporting the right of unions to use dues paid by non-members for political activity, organizing or other activities not directly related to collective bargaining.
In his role with the Justice Department, Fried normally represents the interests of the Reagan Administration. So officials of the anti-union Right to Work Committee and other conservatives who support the President were surprised and outraged by Fried’s move.
But Fried isn’t the only Administration official infuriating the committee and its allies. In fact, they are denouncing the majority of the generally pro-management, Reagan-appointed National Labor Relations Board, which supports Fried’s argument.
Reed Larson, head of the Right to Work Committee, said others who have “conspired to stab at the heart of right to work are Rosemary Collyer, general counsel of the NLRB, Secretary of Labor Bill Brock and his hatchet man, former union boss Stephen Schlossburg,” the deputy labor secretary.
It begins to look as though nearly every Reagan Administration appointee who deals with labor issues is on the committee’s “enemies list.”
In any case, there are ways Fried’s stand can be shot down. For one thing, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III could overrule him. For another, Reagan could order Fried to switch sides, which would mean Fried would have to comply, resign or face dismissal.
Such drastic action isn’t expected. Differences within the Administration probably will not be reconciled. But the differences dividing Fried and the President are highly emotional, particularly in labor-management circles, and the Supreme Court decision could result in major new government restrictions on unions.
At issue is whether the government can tell unions or any other private organization how they can spend their money.
The answer should be no.
A more important question is whether unions should use dues from non-members for purposes opposed by non-members.
Again, the answer should be no.
In fact, most unions voluntarily refund, on request, the portion of non-members’ dues spent on actions not directly tied to collective bargaining. All unions should follow that sensible policy.
Unions collect dues from non-members at companies with union shop contracts approved by a majority of the workers. The rationale for charging non-members dues is that all employees win the same benefits in negotiations with employers.
Fried’s Supreme Court brief said present law does not allow the government to decide how private sector unions use the dues of either members or non-members. This officially put the government behind the Communication Workers of America in its legal battle against the Right to Work Committee.
Not only were the Right to Work Committee and its supporters angered by the brief, more importantly, Reagan himself was infuriated by his solicitor general’s stand, according to committee spokesman Clayton Roberts.
Roberts said that two weeks ago he talked with Reagan at a White House reception given for the right-wing publication Human Events and Radio America. Roberts asked the President if he knew of Fried’s Supreme Court brief and said that Reagan replied:
“I came storming into the office after I read it. I was furious.”
Roberts said he suggested that Reagan either order the solicitor general to withdraw the brief or, at least, instruct the White House’s general counsel to file an alternative brief that truly represents the President’s views.
Although Roberts got no promise of quick action, he said the President promised to look into what could be done. The White House has not commented on the dispute.
Fried, a longtime Harvard law professor, is on sound legal ground. He is also a difficult target for conservatives to attack because he is almost aways on their side.
He told Washington Lawyer magazine recently, “I have a warm feeling toward the Right to Work Committee and, as a philosophical matter, I am more sympathetic to the committee’s view of what the world should look like than the other side.”
But, he said, “I was asked to tell the truth about the words of the Taft-Hartley Act and what the legislative history meant. . . . I simply had to face the music.”
Fried doesn’t sound like a person who will reverse his position even if that is demanded by Reagan.
But the committee should look on the bright side: The controversy might help it raise more money to continue its 32-year battle against unions, and, for what it’s worth these days, the dispute shows the organization still has Reagan on its side.
The threat of privatization has been one of the most effective organizing tools for public employee unions because government workers almost inevitably get hurt when entrepreneurs take over jobs previously handled by government.
Businesses typically are expected to do a job at least as well as government, to do it less expensively and, of course, also make a profit.
When this neat feat actually is achieved, it is done mostly by slashing labor costs.
So when public employees are threatened by privatization, they often turn to unions to help prevent the loss of their jobs or at least cuts in wages and benefits.
Privatization seems so popular among politicians, the wonder is that we have any public employees left, other than those, say, in the armed forces.
However, since government has not shrunk noticeably, the presumption must be that privatization isn’t as attractive in practice as it sounds in a politician’s speech.
Still, these days President Reagan may well be the public employee unions’ best organizer because he is the nation’s most prominent privatization enthusiast, rivaled internationally only by Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
It also has long been a popular idea among politicians at the state and local level, threatening even the lowest-paid public employees.
For example, two years ago, Los Angeles school crossing guards voted overwhelmingly to be represented by Teamsters Union Local 911, just before their jobs were privatized. Crossing guards had been on the city payroll for 45 years.
The Teamsters failed to prevent the city from shifting the guards from the city payroll to a private company in 1985, but now the union is fighting hard to return the guards to their jobs as city employees.
Some city officials oppose the move, saying they can save the city about $1.7 million next year by letting Wells Fargo Guards Service take over the crossing guards job from All City Management, which was given the work two years ago. Not unexpectedly, All City’s costs turned out to be higher than the firm said it had expected.
The part-time guards, 95% of whom are women and 60% minorities, work about 20 hours a week protecting children going to and from school. Some have been at it for 15 years or more.
The guards now get few of the benefits they had received as city employees, and they haven’t received a boost in their $6.01-an-hour wage since their jobs were privatized. Wages of city workers have gone up 10.5% in the same period.
The estimated saving to the city is dubious, but if it comes it will be out of the crossing guards’ pockets and will cut only an insignificant 0.07% from the city’s budget.
Ineffective though it may be, privatization is a tradition, and not just for conservatives. But promoted by either liberal or conservative politicians, privatization does help unionize workers.
Back in 1935, for instance, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, affectionally known as the Little Flower, was supposed to be a liberal friend of workers. But that didn’t mean his workers.
He farmed out many city jobs to private firms, resulting in layoffs of thousands of longtime city employees and pay cuts of up to 50% for those who were rehired by the private companies, some of which were found later to have paid handsomely, and illegally, to get their profitable city contracts.
The Little Flower’s actions stimulated unionization, including the creation of the now 50-year-old Civil Service Technical Guild Local 375. Its members are engineers and technicians--workers who usually are among the least interested in unions.
The tradition of politicians trying to needlessly privatize government jobs isn’t going to end soon. But it would be a small step in that direction if the Los Angeles City Council welcomes back the dedicated school crossing guards to the ranks of city workers.