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COLUMN LEFT / WILLIAM BYWATER : The Dignity of Honest Work Is on the Line : Attempts to prevent striking workers' replacement are at the mercy of Bush's veto pen.

June 14, 1992|WILLIAM BYWATER | William Bywater is president of the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers, usually known by the acronym IUE. and

When robber baron Jay Gould boasted during the Gilded Age that he could "hire one half of the working class to kill the other half," he probably never dreamed the government would help him. But if the Bush Administration and its corporate allies have their way, there will continue to be no legal prohibition against using non-unionized labor to throw union workers out of their jobs and livelihood.

The issue is whether employers have the right to hire workers to permanently replace other workers out on strike. Although our labor laws are designed to protect the right of workers to use their last-resort tactic--the strike--without being fired, some employers are using a legal loophole to undermine the collective bargaining process: Instead of firing strikers, they "permanently replace" them.

The goal of these employers is to bust unions, obtain a pliant workforce and utterly shift the balance in labor-management relations. This one loophole is doing more to roll back the rights of workers than all the violence that employers used years ago to crush strikes and crash picket lines.

Not all nations are willing to treat their workers as disposable resources. Canada, Japan, France and Germany--in fact, the majority of our most successful economic competitors--ban permanent replacement workers. The United States and South Africa are the only fully industrialized nations that allow this practice.

To workers, a strike is always the last alternative, for use when all other options have been exhausted. Strikes take a terrible toll on families and communities, as well as on companies to which workers have given their labor and lives.

But as wrenching as they may be, strikes serve the essential function of putting the ultimate pressure on labor and management to reconcile their differences. Our nation has seen countless gains in the quality of life for every American--decent wages, shorter workdays, better benefits--because workers have stood up for their rights and employers have ultimately recognized them.

If the permanent replacement loophole stands, workers will bear all of the pressure to make concessions, and employers will face none. Neighborhoods will be divided between those who had jobs and those who replaced them. The next time a company decides to squeeze its workers, striking will no longer be a viable option, and this new set of workers will either swallow what management offers or face the same fate as those they replaced.

A bill under consideration this week by the Senate would end this abuse and restore balance to our labor laws by prohibiting the use of permanent replacement workers during collective-bargaining disputes. President Bush opposes this bill and has said he will veto it. Bush, who will try to campaign this fall as a friend of the average American, has clearly shown his true allegiance to corporate interests.

The tactic of hiring permanent replacement workers, though technically legal, was rarely used until 1981, when the Reagan-Bush Administration fired 12,000 striking air traffic controllers and permanently replaced them. Since then, various high-profile employers--among them TWA, Phelps-Dodge, Greyhound and Eastern Airlines' Frank Lorenzo--have seized on collective bargaining impasses to rid themselves of unionized work forces by hiring permanent replacements.

In the last 10 years, almost 300,000 striking workers have been replaced. Although the permanent replacement strategy has not served all of these companies well--some have gone bankrupt--a larger message has been sent to American workers already hit hard by restructuring and recession: Stick to your rights and you'll risk losing your job with no legal recourse.

The United Auto Workers' recent decision to end its five-month strike against Caterpillar after management threatened to hire permanent replacements is only the latest evidence that this message is getting through. There is nothing to keep companies from provoking strikes or escalating them into bitter disputes if the goal is to bust the union and hire low-paid permanent replacements.

In his 1988 campaign, President Bush ate pork rinds and wore baseball caps to show that he was just another average guy. But symbols will matter little this time if he is willing to strip the guts out of the laws that protect working men and women. Now is the time to prohibit the hiring of permanent replacement workers.

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