Reich's Return To Those Thrilling Days Of Labor's Yesteryear

After 12 years in the political wilderness, the leaders of organized labor have finally caught a glimpse of the promised land. They've got a friend in Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, who spent Mar. 30 campaigning on Capitol Hill for labor's No.1 priority, a bill to ban the permanent replacement of strikers. And Reich has further warmed labor leaders' hearts by naming a commission that's likely to recommend legislation making it easier for unions to organize. It's only right, gloats one union official: "We deserve our day."

But that day may be a ways off. Business lobbies, spooked by the roster of prolabor academics named to Reich's panel, are shying away from the Secretary's version of workplace cooperation. And some labor experts worry that the commission is little more than an attempt to turn the clock back three decades to a time when unions claimed 25% of the private work force--compared with 11.5% today.

For a Commission for the Future of Worker-Management Relations, the group has a retro-membership, including former Labor Secretaries John T. Dunlop, Ray Marshall, and William J. Usery; former United Auto Workers President Douglas A. Fraser; and former Commerce Secretary Juanita M. Kreps. It reflects "the small world of labor-management relations the way they used to be," says labor economist Audrey Freedman. "It's a remnant of another era."

Too bad, because labor relations could use some New Age thinking. Executives, academics, even labor leaders increasingly agree on the need for alternatives to confrontation. One possible model: Xerox Corp., whose CEO, Paul A. Allaire, is business' sole representative on the Reich panel. In the early 1980s, a union-backed reorganization saved a Xerox wiring-harness plant in Rochester, N.Y., keeping 200 jobs from going to Mexico. The plant later won a Baldrige Award for quality.

UNLIKELY DEAL. Such nouveau cooperation is running into laws forged in response to 1930s labor strife. Last December, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that worker committees set up unilaterally by Electromation Inc. amounted to illegal "company unions." The ruling has cast a pall over worker-management cooperation at nonunion companies.

The academics advising Reich have some provocative ideas about cooperation that would meet legal tests. Harvard University economist Richard B. Freeman has called for worker-elected "employee-participation committees" to consult with management over safety issues, training, and plant closings. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Thomas Kochan says business should back such changes: "There's a general belief in the business community that empowering workers is good for the economy and for the individual firm." Reich says there's preliminary evidence that "sustained high-profit companies are those that invest in the work force" using such programs as employee participation and gain-sharing.

But the price tag may be daunting. Freeman would cut off tax breaks for companies that don't set up workers' councils. University of Wisconsin professor Paula B. Voos, a panel member, would let workers seek punitive damages from companies that violate labor laws. Fraser sums up labor's dream: "Hopefully, we'll reform the laws of this country so it won't be so difficult to unionize."

That's business' nightmare. "The chances of us supporting any deal that would substantially increase labor's power in the workplace is dim," says Jerry J. Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers .

And even with a Democrat in the White House, unions probably can't win against all-out business opposition. Already, the striker-replacement bill is in trouble in the Senate, where it needs 60 votes to beat a likely filibuster. If the new commission promotes labor's agenda too aggressively, the effort to reform labor laws will bog down, leaving unions still waiting for the sweet bye-and-bye.