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.