ORGANIZED labor - which saw its influence shrink in the 1980s, following President Reagan's firing of 11,000 striking air controllers in 1981 - is again on the defensive. In Washington it's seeking a bill that would bar employers from hiring permanent replacement workers during strikes. But the measure, if passed, is expected to be vetoed by President Bush. And an override is unlikely, experts say.
Meanwhile, labor is in trouble in disputes around the United States. In New York, striking unions have been unable to force a settlement at the New York Daily News. Management says it will close the paper if it is not sold. And British press magnate Robert Maxwell, the prospective buyer, is known as a tough, anti-union employer; he has indicated he wants at least 800 jobs cut.
Union officials here have been forced to challenge a plan by City Hall to defer some municipal-employee wages to help close a city budget gap. A number of Hollywood film executives have said they might suspend production in New York - the No. 2 center in the US for filmmaking, behind Los Angeles - unless unions curb featherbedding practices. Meanwhile, a long strike against Greyhound Lines Inc. continues. Greyhound is operating its buses with replacement workers.
``The size and importance of the union movement in the United States has been reduced to anecdotal status when such [minor] incidents seem to cluster together in one year,'' says Audrey Freedman, an economist with the Conference Board, a business group. The various incidents simply ``show that striking is just not very effective these days.''
At the most, strikes are more likely to destroy an employer's business than bring about wage increases, says Ms. Freedman. She maintains that unions should shift priorities away from bargaining about wage packages to meeting social needs of members - such as better police protection, adequate and inexpensive public transportation, and so forth.
Freedman says the last major success of the unions occurred in the late 1980s, when clerical workers at Harvard were organized.
The increasing use of replacement workers has taken much of the clout out of the threat of a strike, says Charles Perry, a labor expert with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Up until 1980, Professor Perry says, replacement workers were seldom used. But in the most prominent labor disputes of the 1980s, such as strikes involving Eastern Airlines, the Daily News, International Paper, and Greyhound, management has been quick to bring in replacements.
Strikes declined significantly during the '80s, reflecting labor's weaknesses more than it's cooperativeness, experts say. And while the work force increased from 90 million workers to well over 100 million, union membership remained stagnant. In 1981 there were 13.7 million members of the 90 affiliated unions of the AFL-CIO. In 1989, there were 14.1 million members.
The AFL-CIO sees the growing use of replacements as a direct threat to its bargaining clout - and growth. ``Over the past decade, 300,000 workers have been permanently replaced,'' says Candice Johnson, speaking for the AFL-CIO. The bill before Congress, with substantial support, would prevent an employer from offering a permanent job to a replacement worker who is filling in for a worker on a legal strike. Employers, however, would still have the right to hire temporary replacements. The right to hire p ermanent replacement workers was upheld by the US Supreme Court in a 1938 decision.
The AFL-CIO's other two main political priorities, besides getting the replacement bill passed, are health-care reform and opposition to a US-Mexican free-trade pact, Ms. Johnson says.