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U.S. Court OKs Right to Fire Strikers

February 03, 1996|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Friday overturned a White House effort to protect striking workers, throwing out an order by President Clinton that would cut off federal contracts for companies that permanently replace the strikers.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court declared unanimously that the National Labor Relations Act gives employers "the right to permanently replace economic strikers as an offset to the employees' right to strike."

The decision drew a quick response from Clinton, who said he would ask the Justice Department "to take all appropriate steps to have this decision overturned."

Clinton issued the executive order March 8, 1995. It met with considerable applause from organized labor, which was still smarting from the president's aggressive campaign on behalf of two major trade agreements--the revision of global trade regulations that created the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The AFL-CIO feared that the two pacts would increase U.S. imports of foreign goods at the expense of jobs for American workers.

In issuing the order, Clinton said strikes in which replacement workers are hired are longer and more bitter than other strikes. Thus, they could interfere with government purchases and hamper the nation's economy.

The dispute over replacement workers and federal efforts to protect strikers expanded during the last decade, after President Reagan permitted the hiring of replacements for the striking air traffic controllers he had fired in 1981. By 1994, it had become one of the fiercest labor-management battles in a generation, engendering bitter debate in Congress.

Eventually, Congress rejected legislation that would have prevented corporations from firing strikers and permanently replacing them with nonunion workers and Clinton issued the executive order. It was challenged first in U.S. District Court, which upheld the White House.

The appellate court's decision Friday said that AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney "serves employers who want to wage war on workers and hurts the rest of us."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which sought to overturn Clinton's order, argued that the president had violated employers' rights. The organization also contended that Clinton had not linked the order to savings in government procurement costs, as required under government buying regulations. Associations representing builders, bakers, grocers, manufacturers and truckers, among others, joined the chamber in its appeal.

The issue carries a broad reach, with the potential of touching a wide range of the U.S. work force, 22% of which was employed in 1993 by federal contractors and subcontractors, according to a General Accounting Office report.

The impact that it could have on employers was reflected in the speed with which the Chamber of Commerce entered the dispute. It filed its challenge seven days after the administration issued the order.

"This is a complete repudiation of the Clinton administration's attempt to circumvent Congress," said Stephen Bokat, the Chamber of Commerce's general counsel.

"The unions were upset by NAFTA," Bokat said. "This was an attempt to throw a bone to the unions."

In a statement issued in New Hampshire where he was spending the day, Clinton defended his order as "economically sound, fair and legal."

"The right of workers to strike has long been one of America's envied freedoms," Clinton said. That statement, however, sidestepped the focus of the court decision--the right of employers to find permanent replacements for strikers.

The court's decision was written by Judge Lawrence H. Silberman, who was appointed by Reagan. He was joined by Judges David B. Sentelle, another Reagan appointee, and A. Raymond Randolph, named to the court by President Bush.

Clinton's order affected companies with federal contracts exceeding $100,000, about 28,000 firms.

Times staff writer John M. Broder in New Hampshire contributed to this story.

* JOBLESS RATE UP

The U.S. unemployment rate rose to 5.8% last month. D1

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