Labor Department changes bring grumbles from unions

US Secretary of Labor Raymond J. Donovan is under growing pressure from unions who complain that under his direction the Department of Labor has sharply changed direction during the Reagan administration's first six months.

Initially, organized labor took a moderate, wait-and-see attitude toward Secretary Donovan, whose only experience with unions had been as a construction company executive in New Jersey. Now unions are stepping up criticism of the secretary and a number of his close aides. According to organized labor spokesmen, Donovan chose some aides because they were political allies rather than because they were experts in labor matters.

Although the US Chamber of Commerce approves of some of Donovan's actions, many in business management have reservations about his policies. Some complain that he has yet to develop a firm labor-management philosophy and overall policies. Others argue that he had moves too far and too fast in decisionmaking , without consultating with business or organized labor.

Inside business and government, there is concern that if the Labor Department under Donovan further alienates organized labor, the administration will not only forfeit needed labor legislative support for vital programs, but collective bargaining and strike crises could emerge in the next two years. The need for immediate "expert help" is stressed by some who urge the choice of an undersecretary of labor who has a strong background in labor relations. That job is open now.

Organized labor's biggest grievance appears to be over a turnabout in the basic philosophy of the Labor Department. In the past, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the department has interpreted its mandate to "foster, promote, and develop the welfare" of wage-earners as a commitment to take an aggressive role in their behalf. This has meant working closely with organized labor -- much too closely, some business critics frequently complain.

Secretary Donovan has backed away from such an advocacy role and from Labor Department commitments to many job- and worker-protection programs developed over the years. He has given a high priority to improving the administration of the department, often criticized in the past for poor management. Calling the department during the Carter administration "a managerial nightmare," the secretary says the operation has been tightened and now runs "as I ran my business," soundly and effectively.

Moreover, he says, the department has accomplished more in six months "than the Carter administration did in four years."

Acknowledging criticism from the AFL- CIO, he said recently that the federation's dire warnings against White House programs are "scare tactics" and that "workers have more to gain than to lose by going along with [The Reagan program]."

Communications between labor's top leaders and Donovan are badly strained. Union officials say Donovan is too unaccessible, a complaint echoed by many busine ss leaders.

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