US firms edgy over EC bid for corporate forthrightness

US companies are opposed to a European Community proposal requiring multinational corporations to keep their Western European employees abreast of major company decisions and issues.

In recent weeks that opposition has stiffened, despite attempts to ease growing transatlantic tension over the matter.

A trip to the US in February by EC Social Affairs Commissioner Ivor Richard, the man responsible for the so-called Vredeling Proposal, appears to have done little to calm industry fears that the measure, if approved by the 10 EC governments, would be detrimental to US companies with subsidiaries in the Community.

''If anything, concern over the proposal is hardening,'' said Stephen Cooney, director for international investment at the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers, one of four US industry organizations that met with the EC.

To the applause of businesses, Mr. Richard told the European Parliament in November that he would redraft the text, taking the Parliament's recommendations into account. The final version of the proposal, he said, would be ready by the end of March after consultations with industry on both sides of the Atlantic and with labor in Western Europe. EC officials now say the yet-to-be-released final text is expected to be discussed by EC social affairs ministers at their next formal meeting in June.

During Commissioner Richard's week-long visit to Washington and New York, Mr. Cooney recalled in a telephone interview, ''We tried to explain to him that this measure would be a disincentive to investment. It would clearly not encourage US investment in Western Europe.''

A hastily prepared visit to Brussels earlier this month (march) by senior representatives of the US business community also failed to heal the growing split between the EC and US business, officials said. The representatives had flown here at the invitation of Commissioner Richard - ''to provide a final input into his thinking'' - but saw little, if any, change in his approach to the issue, according to participants in the meeting.

There had been some hope among EC officials that the US business community - which has waged an intensive and somewhat successful lobbying campaign against the Vredeling Proposal since it was first introduced more than two years ago - would soften its stance following the European Parliament's vote last October recommending several important pro-business changes in the original text.

An EC spokesman agreed that Mr. Richard had found industry's ''fundamentally hostile position'' unchanged during his trip to the US but that there was now a recognition that the new version of the proposal was ''more realistic.'' The EC commissioner also discussed the proposal with senior US State and Commerce Department officials, who ''reflected the industry view,'' according to informed sources.

A US industry official who participated in the Washington talks said industry had welcomed the European Parliament's vote on the proposal. But he said that Mr. Richard had ''taken the wind out of it'' by rejecting several key Parliament recommendations. He mentioned the Parliament suggestion that companies be allowed to decide what information would be released to the employees.

''I clearly could not go along with the Parliament's view,'' Richard told his business audience in Washington, ''which basically said that any piece of information which the company said was ipso facto a secret could therefore be withheld. That in my view would have risked rendering the directive completely ineffective.'' He suggested that a ''tribunal review disputed cases.'' It would ''doubtless establish a body of law,'' he said, ''which should help to define those matters which can properly be regarded as confidential or secret.''

On his trip to the US, Mr. Richard also showed no inclination, according to US officials, to follow the Parliament's recommendation that consultation with employees take place during the last month before a company decision was implemented.

''I am not happy with this,'' Richard said in Washington, ''not only because it smacks of a take-it-or-leave-it attitude but also because it effectively prevents unions coming forward with constructive alternative ideas. The commission's view is that consultation should take place before the final decision is taken by management.''

Also unmoved by Mr. Richard's visit to the US have been business leaders based in Western Europe.

''Industry as a whole still feels there is no need for new legislation'' in the field, according to Peter Danos, chairman of the American Chambers of Commerce in Europe - Mediterranean. ''In fact, a directive such as that being proposed by Commissioner Richard would make relations (between managment and labor) more difficult.''

Says J. A. Vinois of the Brussels-based Union of European Community Industries (UNICE): ''Our main areas of concern have still not been addressed.''

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