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Brock Mends Fences as Reagan's Moderate

April 23, 1986|Harry Bernstein

William E. Brock III almost always looks and acts relaxed, as if his role as an almost pro-union, moderate Republican secretary of labor in the ultra-conservative Reagan Administration isn't a paradoxical one, filled with crises.

He probably acts that way because he is just what President Reagan wants: a labor secretary who certainly isn't anti-union and can communicate effectively and cordially with bitterly anti-Reagan union leaders yet still do relatively little harm to the Administration's relations with conservative Republicans.

Most union leaders seem to genuinely like Brock because they trust him to accurately voice their views to Reagan, even though he isn't trying to change the Administration's essentially anti-union policies.

Brock has angered some conservative groups, such as the National Right to Work Committee, which want him to join their anti-union crusades. He has refused, bluntly. But the President's own policies are so much more sympathetic to corporations than to workers that they more than offset Brock's own more middle-of-the-road views, and he gets along well with most employers.

However, consider some of the crises that seemingly should upset Brock but apparently do not:

- The fiasco that led to the abrupt cancellation of an unusual "Work and the Family" conference. The long-planned conference was to bring together representatives of two frequently feuding organizations: the AFL-CIO and the National Assn. of Manufacturers. Brock's Labor Department joined with the union, the business group and the Bureau of National Affairs, a private publishing and information company, to sponsor the affair. However, it was suddenly canceled when the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild threatened to put an "informational" picket line around the hotel in Washington where the conference was to be held because the union was in a contract dispute with Bureau of National Affairs.

The most surprising aspect of the affair was the announcement that the Labor Department and the conservative NAM, whose members might be expected to gleefully cross any union picket line, had joined the AFL-CIO in saying that their representatives could not attend the conference if it meant going through the picket line. An NAM spokesman explained that to do so would have been "embarrassing" for NAM President Robert Dee, who is also chief executive of SmithKline Beckman Corp.

Also embarrassing--both for Brock and for many NAM members--was the Bureau of National Affairs' position on one issue in dispute with the union: the company's rejection of a union proposal that an employee who adopts a child be allowed to stay away from work by using five days of his or her own sick leave when the newly adopted baby is brought home.

It is hardly a radical proposal. Many companies allow paid leave for workers with newly adopted children, and apparently it was hard for at least some NAM members to quarrel with the union's position on that issue.

Although the cancellation of the conference might have seemed like a crisis, Brock accepted it with equanimity, and some of his aides saw the reluctance of the employer association to cross the threatened union picket line as yet another step toward increased labor-management cooperation that will improve the chances of a successful "Work and the Family" conference when it is finally held.

- Brock faces a potentially embarrassing situation next month when he addresses the Teamsters Union convention in Las Vegas. Backed with some harsh language from President Reagan's Commission on Organized Crime, Teamsters dissidents are trying to get the Labor Department and the courts to declare the union's method of electing its president and other top officers illegal. Previous attempts over the years to force a change in the system have failed.

The nearly 2,000 delegates to conventions of the nation's largest union are incumbent local and regional officers themselves, and they, in turn, elect the top international officers. Dissidents charge that this system deprives rank and filers of a real voice in choosing their top leaders. The President's commission said the system may have helped organized crime maintain a strong influence in the 1.8-million-member union.

The local and regional officers are elected by rank-and-file members, and previous labor secretaries who have approved the election system argued that the locally elected officials could dump unpopular international officers if there were any real membership rebellion.

In any case, the issue of whether the union election system is fair and legal is under consideration once again--this time by Brock. Nevertheless, even though he is still deeply involved in making decisions about that and other charges against the Teamsters, he will address the convention, presumably as a friend, not as an adversary or a judge of the union's conduct. He doesn't seemed the least bit perturbed by it all.

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