Labor in Balance

ONE of John Kenneth Galbraith's earlier and more influential books was entitled ``American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power.'' In it, the Harvard economist dealt with the thesis that the power of Big Business and Big Labor offset each other, with the government acting as a referee and a countervailing force itself.

To organized labor, the Reagan and Bush governments were no longer neutral, but an ally of management. Thus the balance of power was upset, damaging equity. Union power, already challenged by the shift within the economy from industry to service activities, shriveled further. Trade-union membership declined from about 35 percent of the work force in 1955 to around 16 percent today. The AFL-CIO has lost some of its clout in Congress.

Now, with a Democratic administration taking office in Washington, labor should get fairer treatment. Corporate management, which has had something close to carte blanche to run roughshod over unions, will have to be more careful in its labor relations. For a decade or so, union busters hired by management have skirted the law with near impunity.

As one remedy, President Clinton has nominated William Gould IV, a Stanford law professor, as chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces the nation's labor laws. Mr. Gould has spelled out his hopes for reinvigorating the NLRB and labor relations in general in a new book, ``Agenda for Reform: The Future of Employment Relationships and the Law.'' He wants the NLRB to ask for more court injunctions against serious violations of labor law by employers before cases are dragged through the agency's lengthy appeals process. He wants the board to order employers to bargain with a union that has less than 50 percent of worker support in a company if management has committed illegal practices that deprived the union of a majority.

The AFL-CIO won't like all of Gould's plans, but is delighted in general with his nomination.

A second element that should restore some balance to labor relations is the law passed by the House to prohibit employers from hiring permanent replacements for union members who strike. This comes up for debate in the Senate this month with Republicans promising a filibuster. Organized labor has cleaned up its act enormously in the past 20 years, ridding itself of corrupt unions and behaving more responsibly in regard to work rules. It deserves better treatment at the hand of the law.

Republicans stand in danger of becoming seen as the party of management and the privileged if a filibuster succeeds. That's not a politically good place to stand when the real income of most employees is still declining.

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