Labor, Dole Steer Toward New Era. AFL-CIO CONFERENCE

UNION leaders are finding a better, kinder White House, but they're not sure what to make of it. President Bush has set a conciliatory tone toward labor. Even before the election, he campaigned on the need to raise the minimum wage, an issue near and dear to the heart of organized labor. This week the new labor secretary, Elizabeth Dole, reaffirmed this cooperative tone. ``You and I are partners,'' she told trade unionists gathered here for the midwinter meeting of the AFL-CIO.

Union leaders welcome this change in tone under Mr. Bush after eight years of confrontation with the Reagan administration.

``I don't think it is going to be as harsh,'' says Morton Bahr, president of the Communications Workers of America.

The new administration will be better, ``because it couldn't be worse,'' adds Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

Nevertheless, these union leaders are not certain that a smiling White House will be a good ally.

``Niceness is nice,'' says AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland. But ``we still want to see what the concrete product of it is.''

In her meeting Tuesday with the AFL-CIO executive council, Mrs. Dole mostly avoided specifics. But she did highlight four areas in which she saw the need for improvement:

Retraining workers and upgrading their skills.

Ensuring the safety of the workplace, with a special emphasis on preventing accidents.

Addressing the special needs of the working family, such as tax credits for child day care.

Creating a national pension policy, where workers would not lose their benefits as they move from job to job.

Organized labor is pursuing some of the same goals, especially child care and parental leave. The AFL-CIO this week created a new committee to develop national policies to meet the needs of the working family. The formation of the committee signals a gradual broadening of organized labor's agenda, says Mr. McEntee, the committee's chairman. ``The labor movement ... should be out on the point of great social problems.''

But an essential difference remains between the way organized labor intends to solve those problems and the new administration's approach. While Dole, in comments to reporters here, emphasized more voluntary solutions to the problems of the workplace, unions are pushing for specific pieces of legislation.

``We never signed on for a honeymoon,'' Mr. Kirkland says. ``I am quite certain that there are some [areas] where we will disagree.''

One of the telling signs of the new administration's priorities is its budget. From 1979 to 1988, the Labor Department's budget declined by 38 percent when adjusted for inflation, according to the Trade Union Advisor, a labor newsletter published in New York. Mr. Bush's 1990 budget calls for a $1 million decrease for the Labor Department to $31.6 billion.

A key area of concern for organized labor is health and safety enforcement in the workplace. For example, Bush has yet to amend Reagan's budget request for the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which increased funding by a small $8.4 million to $252.9 million. That is not enough in Mr. Kirkland's view. And he sent a warning to the Bush administration that more was needed.

``It's all very fine to favor, for example, the protection of the health and safety of workers on the job,'' he said. ``If that is not accompanied by an adequate inspection service and the rigorous enforcement of the laws, then it is lip service and little more.''

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