The strongly conservative tilt of the US Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee leaves no doubt among leaders in organized labor that unions will be on the defensive in the Senate for at least two years.
Conservatives have moved into two offices that are highly important for labor's legislative programs:
* Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah is the new chairman of the committee. Senator Hatch already has served notice that he plans a full-scale investigation of corruption in the workplace and that he intends to seek minimum-wage and other legislative changes opposed by labor.
* Sen. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma is the new head of the subcommittee for labor of the Labor and Human Resources Committee. The subcommittee has jurisdiction over legislation that directly affects the labor movement. Senator Nickles is the youngest senator at 32, and he is considered one of that chamber's most conservative members.
Senator Hatch succeeded Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D) of New Jersey, a longtime close friend and ally of the union movement.
Republicans have a 9-to-7 majority on the full Hatch committee, including two moderates, Sen. Robert T. Stafford of Vermont and Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut. The AFL-CIO lists them as "potential swing votes" that could keep the committee from moving too far to the right.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts became the ranking Democrat on the Committee when Senator Williams shifted his committee seniority to the Banking Committee. As labor's leading advocate in the committee, Senator Kennedy is strengthening his position to bid for labor's full political support in 1984. Senator Williams remains on the committee, behind Senator Kennedy.
Indicating the concern it feels, the AFL-CIO recently noted that it ranked Senator Williams as 93 percent "right" in votes on union-backed legislation in the last Congress, while Senator Hatch's voting record was "a very poor 7 percent."
The subcommittee for labor has a 6-to-4 Republican tilt under Senator Nickles , a former machinery company executive described in a Congressional Quarterly profile as "at the conservative end of a conservative group of Republican newcomers." Senator Hatch also serves on the panel. Senators Kennedy and Williams head the Democratic minority.
Shortly after the new Congress was seated, Senator Hatch shocked labor by announcing that he would hold hearings on "union corruption and union-business corruption, which is taking money out of workers' rightfully earned paychecks." He listed as potential targets the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union, the Laborers' International union, and the International Longshoremen's union. All have been under government investigation.
Union already are among the country's most closely regulated institutions, and the AFL-CIO has a record of strong opposition to corruption directly or indirectly tied to trade unionism. Its leaders consider open hearings by the Hatch committee to be unnecessary and potentially harmful to organized labor generally. Its leaders are afraid that the hearings would create an atmosphere conducive to pro-business legislation.
The AFL-CIO is concerned about forthcoming moves in both the full Hatch committee and the labor subcommittee for a lower minimum wage for teen-agers, for changes in what Senator Hatch calls "the ridiculous quota system" for minority hiring under federal affirmative-action programs, for stricter control over federal jobs programs, and for a more limited scope for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Business has complained that unnecessary OSHA inspections and regulations have run costs sky-high. Taking a similar position, Senator Hatch recently criticized the agency for "vindictive and petty" administration of safety and health regulations. He said that he favors limiting regulations to employers with poor safety records or where complaints are filed.