Mounting another attack on the central policies of the Republican administrations of the last 12 years, the Clinton Administration Tuesday launched a highly visible campaign to win passage of legislation that would bar companies from permanently replacing workers who strike.
During the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations, union leaders said, employers were able to break strikes by firing workers and replacing them with non-union employees who were paid lower wages and received fewer benefits. The practice contributed to the erosion of organized labor’s power throughout the 1980s.
Even old-line industrial companies like Caterpillar Inc. used the threat of hiring replacements to force unions to back down in confrontations with management.
With the Clinton Administration’s efforts to reverse the broad economic policies of the last 12 years already well under way, Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich Tuesday underscored the Administration’s support for a sharp change in labor policies as well. He testified separately before both the House Education and Labor Committee and the Senate Labor and Human Resources subcommittee on labor.
The new Administration’s first big push on behalf of organized labor will be for the controversial striker-replacement legislation, labor’s No. 1 priority this year.
The new Administration, seeking to reward unions for their support of Clinton during the campaign and their backing of the White House economic plan, is committed to pushing hard for the legislation, despite heavy opposition from the business community.
During the primaries, labor was lukewarm toward Clinton, who was governor of a right-to-work state and who had a mixed record on labor policy. But Clinton pledged during the campaign to impose a ban on striker replacements and the union movement got behind him in the general election.
“This legislation is all about closing the book on the 1980s,” Reich said in his testimony. “This was a very divisive issue and led to the disintegration of trust between labor and management in the last decade. You can’t create a genuine partnership when one partner feels that there’s a loaded gun aimed at its temple.”
The bill represents one of the first elements of a much more comprehensive labor agenda designed to erase the legacy of 12 years of Republican control of the White House. For instance, the Administration is expected to announce within the next few weeks that it will lift the ban on the air traffic controllers union, which Reagan outlawed in 1981 after the controllers went on strike.
Reich argued that Reagan’s decision to outlaw the controllers union set the tone for labor relations in the 1980s and sent a message to business leaders that Washington would not oppose corporate efforts to break strikes and unions. The White House has said that Clinton is committed to changing that policy, but Administration officials said that an announcement will not be made until an interagency review between the Labor and Transportation departments is completed.
In addition, last week Reich and Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown took steps to develop a broader framework for Clinton Administration labor policy when they announced creation of a commission on the future of worker-management relations that is charged with developing proposals for labor-law reform.
The striker-replacement issue is shaping up as the biggest battleground between labor and business interests in Congress this year. Legislation barring business from replacing striking workers has passed the House in the past but has failed to get through the Senate and is likely to face tough opposition there again this year.
Business interests are bitterly opposed, arguing that the legislation would tilt the balance of power in collective bargaining toward labor. “This legislation will be more disastrous for small business than any other piece of legislation I can think of,” Jackson Faris, president of the National Federation of Independent Business, told the Senate subcommittee. “If this passes, watch out.”
Republican congressional leaders agreed. Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) said she is concerned that the measure might “cause more harm than good by actually encouraging strikes.”
Labor takes an opposite view, insisting that the legislation will only redress the shift in power toward business in the 1980s.
The practice of hiring striker replacements “sanctions a harsh injustice against working people who exercise their legal right to strike and it provides employers with a far more destructive economic weapon than any that employees have in their arsenal,” Thomas Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, told the Senate panel.
Relatively few companies used replacement workers to break strikes in the 1980s, Reich noted. Only about 4% of workers on strike were permanently replaced during the decade, experts noted. But the practice and the threat of its use in collective bargaining has poisoned “the well for everyone,” Reich declared.
There was actually no change in the law during the Reagan-Bush era that allowed companies to begin to break strikes with replacement workers, experts noted. But Reagan’s decision to break the air traffic controllers union showed business leaders that they could take advantage of a 1938 Supreme Court ruling that allowed firms to permanently replace strikers.
The threat that workers could be replaced if they went on strike had a chilling effect on union organizing and bargaining. In 1980, 23% of the American public and private work force was organized but by 1992 that rate fell to 15.8%.
“The practice of permanent striker replacement became a prominent feature of American labor relations only in the last dozen years,” Reich observed. And by banning the practice now, he added, “we can start to concentrate on the (labor-management) solutions of the future and not on the problems of the past.”