THE long winter of discontent between the American labor movement and the United States government is over.
The Clinton administration has already signaled the warming trend in small ways. Soon, it is expected to make its biggest gesture yet: lifting the hiring ban on air controllers who illegally struck the government 12 years ago. The move is an important symbol for battered unions.
"I think it's an important first step," says Jim Grossfeld, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America. "What the Clinton administration is attempting to do ... is making it very clear that the Reagan-Bush era of labor relations is coming to an end." New attitude toward labor
"It does say that Clinton in one or two areas is really trying to accommodate unions," adds Audrey Freedman, a long-time labor observer and head of her own management consulting firm in New York City. "Because the union movement made such a to-do about PATCO and Reagan's reaction to it, the Clinton reversal takes on symbolic importance."
PATCO was the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization - a strong-willed union that staged a highly public showdown with the Reagan administration. The union lost. President Reagan fired the strikers (it is illegal for federal employees to strike) and hired nonunion replacements. More than any other action in the 1980s, the dissolution of PATCO became the symbol of unions' long decline.
The biggest test of labor's strength now is an escalating struggle in the nation's coal mines. On Monday the United Mine Workers started selective strikes against three large coal operators with mines in Indiana and Illinois. Union president Richard Trumka plans to expand the action to press for more job security for miners. Operators have expanded nonunion mines at the expense of unionized ones.
Job security is an old issue, but the miners are arguing it in a new, more Clinton-sensitive way. The union wants a new labor-management relationship, Mr. Grossfeld says. "Our message is: We're willing to change, but they have to be willing to change too."
The Bituminous Coal Operators' Association, which represents the companies at the bargaining table, argues that union miners are not as productive as nonunion miners.
Setting a new tone, the Clinton administration has hinted it might reverse Reagan's ban on rehiring the fired air-traffic controllers. The White House already revoked two of President Bush's executive orders that had made it harder for unions to represent workers on federal contracts. The White House has also appointed a commission to look for ways to better labor-management cooperation.
Lifting the hiring ban would not be entirely symbolic. Some 3,000 fired air controllers could reapply for jobs, says Jeff Beddow, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The successor to PATCO supports an end to the ban because it contends the nation's corps of air-traffic controllers is understaffed.
Yet the warming trend with Washington does not signal a renaissance of the American labor movement. Labor observers, as well as many within the union movement, say some fundamental reforms would have to take place before US unions could reverse their declines. Long-term trend continues
Rex Hardesty, a longtime spokesman for the AFL-CIO, says that the loss of well-paid union jobs and the decline in real wage rates continues today as it did during the Reagan-Bush administrations. "As long as that's going on, it's very hard to declare that the era is behind us," he says.
"We still have lockouts and knockdown, drag-out disputes," adds Gary Hubbard, a spokesman for the United Steelworkers of America. "If we don't get labor-law reform ... we can't fight for those [social-policy] things."
It's not clear how far the Clinton administration wants to push labor-law reform, says Richard Hurd, director of labor studies at Cornell University. Even with full White House endorsement, "the Senate does not have the numbers to get through major labor reform." Professor Hurd says the administration will emphasize labor-management cooperation instead.
This move would give organized labor more say with management, but it will hardly reverse organized labor's decline, experts agree. Labor's share of the work force started to decline in the mid-1950s. Companies started to step up their opposition to union organizing in the early 1970s.
"I don't think unions can change the labor law enough - even with major support from the White House, [to] return to aggressive growth and strength," Ms. Freedman says. "The economy is so much more competitive and so much more volatile." Unions thrive on stability, she adds.