APPALACHIAN coal miners are poised to go on strike, and Democrats in Congress are pushing through a bill that would protect striking workers from being permanently replaced by management. This comes at a time when a major item on the agenda of congressional Democrats is a bill that would prohibit employers from hiring permanent replacements for strikers.
The bill is said to be the highest-priority item of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) for the current legislative year.
Although general practice in the United States has been to return workers to their jobs without penalties after strike settlements, there is no specific law requiring this.
From 1970 to about 1987 - prosperous years for the most part - this country experienced a period of few strikes, although some of the most bitter and hotly contested "job actions" occurred during those years.
The most dramatic was the air-traffic controllers' strike in 1981, which resulted in the wholesale firing by President Reagan of 11,000 of the controllers in the nation's major airports. The impact of that action is still being felt by airlines and passengers, and by strikers who have had to find other occupations. Mr. Reagan was acting for the federal government against strikers who were in quasi-public service jobs. Most employers don't operate with such an advantage.
Back in 1938, the Supreme Court ruled that employers could hire permanent replacements when strikes dealt with wages, benefits, or other economic conditions, and that permanent replacements would not be dismissed nor strikers necessarily reemployed.
In recent years, the practice of permanently firing strikers has been on the increase.
A majority of congressional Democrats favor the new measure, which would codify the requirement to rehire strikers. A majority of Republicans are opposed.
Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, the House majority leader, says the bill will be readily passed in his chamber; but its backers in the Senate face a situation similar to others that have arisen since the recent election: Senate Republicans may be able to filibuster the proposal into oblivion for this session.
Although organized labor no doubt could weather such a setback, this proposal is the right step at the right time in labor-management relations. Democratic leaders see this strike protection as an essential step in guaranteeing workers the right to return to their jobs without penalty after settlement of labor disputes.
It could, and probably should, be an idea whose time has come.