Secretary of Labor William E. Brock III held out an olive branch Wednesday to organized labor, the staunch foes of his boss, President Reagan, and warned employers that it would be "stupid" to try to improve the nation's competitive position "by reducing the standard of living now enjoyed by American workers and their families."
Brock told the delegates to the AFL-CIO convention in Anaheim that he deplores corporate strategies "of ruthlessly cutting labor costs."
"We can see this policy followed in a number of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, like out-sourcing (shifting work from unionized workplaces to low-wage non- union work sites), relocating production facilities abroad and an increase in union avoidance activities," he added.
The labor secretary also said the implementation of two-tier wage systems, which have been used by companies in recent years to cut labor costs, are "not sustainable on a long-term basis" because of the friction they create among workers.
Although Brock received little applause during his speech, he gave surprisingly strong support to many of the long-sought goals of organized labor and praised the role the AFL-CIO played in American society.
"You have improved the standard of living of your members and, through your example, you have improved the quality of life for all Americans," he said.
Brock's address to the AFL-CIO convention was the first by a labor secretary since Reagan became President in 1981. His predecessor, Raymond J. Donovan, was never invited to speak to the convention and was regarded with contempt by the federation's president, Lane Kirkland, and many other union leaders.
Kirkland praised Brock as a "straight shooter" and pledged that the 13.2-million-member federation will cooperate with the secretary on mutually agreeable issues.
Still, Kirkland said of Reagan's policies, "we criticize and we criticize with great validity, and we retract none of it."
Earlier this week, Kirkland in his keynote address excoriated Reagan. In addition, just before Brock spoke, Owen Bieber, president of the United Auto Workers, blasted the Administration while speaking on a convention resolution about Social Security.
Brock said labor, management and the government have to make a fundamental re-examination of the way labor relations are conducted in this country.
"Management must reconsider the wisdom of clinging tenaciously to what it has long regarded as its inherent rights," he said. "And labor must reconsider the wisdom of demanding the perpetuation of work rules and jurisdictional boundaries between jobs that no longer make sense and on abandoning the last vestige of any belief that productivity, competitiveness and profitability are exclusively a management concern."
Brock devoted a significant part of his speech to discussion of the way that the "dramatic and historically unprecedented" increase of women in the work force is affecting life in the United States.
"Two-earner families have become the rule, rather than the exception, and single-parent families headed by women with dependent children now constitute a group of sizable proportions."
However, he said the fact is that "our employment system continues to operate largely as though workers have no families at all--that's crazy."
Brock said workers often find their roles as breadwinners and as family members in conflict. He said this is nowhere better revealed than in the contemporary dilemma regarding child care.
He advocated cooperation among union, management and government to foster the growth of child-care centers to help resolve the problem.
Adjustable Working Hours
Brock added that there are more than 480,000 government employees who enjoy the privilege of adjusting their working hours to accommodate personal and family needs.
"I would like to see Congress enact legislation making this privilege a right," he said.
The labor secretary made it clear, however, that he does not expect the federal government to play a major role in achieving most of the proposals he advocated. In an interview after the speech, for example, he said he will not seek Administration approval to restore the 30% cut that has been made in the Labor Department budget since Reagan took office.
Rather, he said, the solution should be achieved through cooperation of unions and management.
Several union officials interviewed after Brock's speech applauded his support for labor's goals. However, there was general skepticism about the possibility of his moving the conservative Reagan Administration away from its "anti-union policies."
Don Stillman, UAW legislative director, said union officials are pleased that they are able to communicate with Brock, particularly in contrast with the closed-door policy they believed they faced with Donovan.
"The problem, though, is the policies of the Administration," he added. "The Reagan policy toward labor is abysmal."
In other developments Wednesday, the federation added four new members to its executive council, including a third black member, Gene Upshaw, president of the Federation of Professional Athletes and executive director of the National Football League Players Assn.
For the first time, the federation elected to the council an individual who is not a top officer of one of its 96 affiliated unions: Robert A. Georgine, president of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department since 1974. The others are Larry Dugan Jr., president of the Operating Engineers, and Milan Stone, president of the United Rubber Workers.