Union Leaders Optimistic About Labor's Relations With Clinton Administration

ORGANIZED labor, once the backbone of the Democratic coalition, did not especially want a "different kind of Democrat," as President-elect Clinton has styled himself.

Observing his administration form, labor leaders seem to have the overwhelming relief of watching the thaw of an ice age for labor's interests and a gnawing uncertainty about how warm it will get.

When two top economic posts in the Clinton administration went to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas as treasury secretary and Rep. Leon Panetta (D) of California as director of the Office of Management and Budget, many labor advocates were disappointed.

But when Robert Reich of Harvard University was named labor secretary, the gloom lifted.

"It's been 12 bad years," says Douglas Fraser, a former United Auto Workers president who teaches at Wayne State University. Union officials are relieved, he says, to have a labor secretary nominated who is familiar with organized labor.

Mr. Reich says things unions like to hear about work and national investment, but he seldom mentions unions. In his book, "The Work of Nations," he writes about them on five pages without saying what role they should have in a revitalized economy.

But because Reich is a friend and close adviser to Clinton, some labor officials see his appointment as elevating the job from a second-tier post to a central one. "He's not only smart and innovative, but he can talk to the president," says Ray Abernathy, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union.

"It's been a long time since we had a friend in the Labor Department," says Dave Stack, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists.

"The starting point is that labor has suffered through, not just an unfriendly administration, but a hostile administration," Mr. Fraser says. Even labor secretaries who sympathized on some labor issues, he says, were struck down by White House officials. Labor leaders confident

Union leaders are confident that the balance of power between labor and management will shift in their direction. They already consider a new law banning the permanent replacement of striking workers to be a done deal. The law has support in Congress, and Mr. Clinton has promised to sign it.

The question of whether companies could permanently replace strikers was not a prominent one until President Reagan made an example of the air traffic controllers' union, breaking it by hiring and training new controllers.

Corporate managers followed suit, says Sam Dawson, political director for the United Steelworkers of America. "We can't allow workers to strike, and then allow employers to fire them."

The other issue that has united labor is reforming the health care system. Health care benefits have become a major point of contention between management and labor. "It's the toughest issue on the table," Mr. Stack says. It has also led to more work actions, including strikes, than any other issue in recent years, he says.

Everything Clinton has said so far on the subject matches what labor wants, although his plans remain vague. Unions want to make sure their members have access to quality health care and that they can afford it.

Despite the controversy, many unions see controlling health care costs as a shared interest between labor and business. "It's killing productivity," Mr. Abernathy says. "We're anxious to move the issue off the bargaining table."

The greatest concern for labor is the North American Free Trade Agreement. Clinton supports the treaty, with qualifications, but many unions believe it will deplete American manufacturing jobs that the country needs. The steelworkers' union, for example, had 1.2 million members in 1980, most of them actual steelworkers. Now it has 550,000 members. Unions ask for change

Union officials argue for higher minimum wages and environmental standards in Mexico to help even out the business costs between the two countries. At the economic conference Clinton held in Little Rock, Ark., this week, steelworkers' union president Lynn Williams concentrated his presentation on the value of environmental standards and regulation in securing jobs, as well as making jobs safer and healthier.

For all its other points, this argument serves as a backdoor appeal to strengthen the union's case against free trade with Mexico.

"No question, Clinton is not a New Deal Democrat, so unions shouldn't expect that," says Charles Craypo, a labor economist at the University of Notre Dame. But if he reaches out to them as part of the mainstream, he adds, they will be loyal supporters.

Within Clinton's first year as president, three seats will open up on the National Labor Relations Board. His appointments could make a significant difference in how labor law is enforced.

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