Strike Bill Could Destroy Critical Workplace Balance

Current collective bargaining has worked well for over 50 years, so why change a fair system by encouraging `risk free' strikes?

FOR many years we served as representatives of the federal government in various capacities with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). We were appointed board members under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Together we represent more than 100 years of experience in labor-management relations.

While we did not always agree on the outcome of cases brought before the NLRB - member Jenkins's decisions were more often pro-union and member Penello's dissents were more often pro-employer - we agree that the Strike Bill would destroy the core principle of balance in collective bargaining.

The Strike Bill, which has passed the House and is expected to be voted on today by the Senate, would prohibit employers from defending their businesses by offering permanent jobs to replacement workers during a strike over economic issues such as pay raises and benefits.

Proponents of the Strike Bill claim that employers' use of permanent replacement workers during an economic strike is a recent phenomenon. This simply is not true. The National Labor Relations Act, enacted in 1935, provided a delicate balance that allows unions to strike over wage demands and allows employers to defend their businesses by hiring permanent replacement workers.

The striker-replacement legislation would destroy this core principle of United States labor law, which has been consistently supported by Democratic and Republican presidents and federal courts for over half a century.

In our experience, the balance of power inherent in these countervailing economic weapons is what has made the system work. Take away either the right to strike or the right to operate with permanent replacements, and the other party will be sure to overreach. We fear the striker replacement legislation will encourage confrontation and ``risk-free'' strikes, where economic strikers could make unreasonable demands and shut down employers with no risk of their own.

Some contend that the system is not balanced, that permanent replacement of economic strikers is the equivalent of being fired. Again, this isn't true. Even so-called ``permanently replaced'' strikers have continuing rights to reinstatement to all available future jobs. The NLRB developed adequate safeguards for economic strikes, one of which puts employers under an affirmative continuing obligation to first offer jobs to unreinstated economic strikers on a preferential basis before hiring new employees.

Furthermore, the actual number of workers replaced is minute. A Bureau of National Affairs study found nearly 40,000 economic strikers were replaced in 1991-1992, out of a US labor force of 125 million. That's less than .03 percent. Nearly 70 percent of these 40,000 strikers were later reinstated to their jobs. Also, the number of strikes in the US has been decreasing since 1947, the first year the US Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics began to maintain strike data.

Current collective bargaining is a fair and reasonable system that has worked for over 50 years. We see no compelling evidence to suggest that any changes to this law are needed or even wanted by the American people. In fact, a recent Gallup poll shows that 57 percent of Americans oppose a ban on permanent replacement workers.

The current debate in Congress reflects these facts. In an effort to save the Strike Bill, proponents of the legislation are searching for an acceptable compromise. However, none of the proposed compromises improve the original legislation. Any Strike Bill compromise would have the same result as the original legislation - risk-free strikes.

Under the most discussed compromise proposal - a moratorium on hiring replacements - strikes would be limited to durations of four to 10 weeks. This would avoid few strikes, since most strikes last less than 10 weeks, and would do little to mitigate the devastating economic impact of the original bill.

Economic strikes were never intended by Congress to be risk-free. And the right to strike was never guaranteed to be successful in forcing an employer to accede to a union's bargaining demands. To the contrary, the core principle of our national labor law is a balance of rights and obligations, risks and reward, which, through the dynamics of collective bargaining, drives parties closer together toward labor contracts and peacefully negotiated settlements.

For these reasons and based upon our long experience in administering federal labor policy we must now speak out against the striker-replacement legislation - in any form. We believe the Strike Bill would imperil future decades of improving cooperation between labor and management and return us to the disruptive labor disputes of previous decades.

Strikes in the US are at an all-time low. In 1974 there were 424 strikes involving 1.8 million workers and 32 million lost workdays, compared with 1993, when there were only 35 major work stoppages involving 182,000 employees and 4 million lost workdays.

With the incidence of strikes at a record low, it is difficult to understand why Congress would pass legislation that would actually increase the number of strikes in America.

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