Plunging into a new conflict with congressional Republicans, President Clinton issued an executive order Wednesday authorizing the government to cut off federal contracts to companies that hire replacement workers during strikes.
The order, another sign of White House efforts to strengthen its Democratic base, addresses a subject that is a priority for Clinton's labor allies. But it is also a highly charged issue for business.
Republicans in Congress scrambled to counter the order.
Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.), who chairs the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, immediately denounced the move as an end-run around congressional authority and said that she would add language to a pending defense appropriation bill to reverse the order.
"It goes directly against the will of Congress," said a spokesman for Kassebaum, who already has asked Atty. Gen. Janet Reno for a ruling on the order's legality.
In the House, Rep. Bill Goodling (R-Pa.), chairman of the Economic and Educational Opportunity Committee, introduced a bill to void the order. Two weeks ago, a House subcommittee voted to prohibit the use of federal funds to implement such an order.
Clinton signed the document in an Oval Office ceremony with Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, who hailed the event as a "welcome step toward justice in the workplace."
Kirkland said that the President's order reflects the "proposition that you cannot get good-quality goods and services from a company or employer that is engaged in warfare against its work force."
The ceremony was closed to the press in an apparent effort to contain publicity on the divisive issue.
The order, disclosed in advance by Vice President Al Gore in a February speech to the AFL-CIO, applies to contracts worth more than $100,000. It sets up a mechanism by which the labor secretary will notify agencies if their contractors are using replacement workers.
In practice, the rule, if it stands, is likely to be applied in very few situations.
The order gives agencies some latitude to fight the labor secretary's instructions if they believe they cannot proceed without the contractors' help. And its procedures are likely to move so slowly that many strikes will be resolved before a contractor is stripped of government work.
Last year, 454 recorded strikes occurred in the nation. About 30 involved striker replacements. About 28,000 companies do more than $100,000 worth of business with the federal government, the White House said, ranging from giant defense concerns to tiny companies that provide food service or office supplies.
Officials said that the order would not affect Caterpillar, which is being struck by the United Auto Workers, because the company has not indicated that it plans to hire permanent replacements.
Despite the relative rarity of striker replacements, however, the order could have a substantial effect by changing perceptions of the balance of labor-management power among contractors, experts said.
Baruch Fellner, labor partner at the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher law firm in Washington, said that as a practical matter it is "very, very difficult" to replace trained workers.
Yet "the ability to wield this weapon, to threaten . . . is extraordinarily important," he said. "And if you take away that weapon in your arsenal . . . you are affecting perceptions . . . , you are affecting bargaining."
Fellner, a former Labor Department official, speculated that Republicans "have a decent chance" of passing legislation to void Clinton's order.
The issue of replacing striking workers carries heavy symbolism with organized labor, particularly since President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
Reagan's action was seen as a turning point, "and that's why we're so happy that President Clinton has set a different moral tone," said James B. Parks, an AFL-CIO spokesman.
The gesture is also vital politically for Clinton, who is trying to extinguish any threat of a primary challenge from within his party. Labor has been pleased with Clinton's efforts on health reform and proposed subsidies for the working class, but sharply critical of his free-trade campaign.
In 1991 and 1993, union-backed efforts to bar strike replacements were passed by the House but died in the Senate in the face of filibusters.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said that the order "sets a dangerous precedent" since "it is the responsibility of Congress, not the Administration, to write the laws governing labor-management relations."
But White House officials cited Reagan's firing of the controllers as a precedent, showing that presidents do have executive authority over contractor issues, absent specific congressional action.