Congress is scheduled to vote this week on legislation that state labor experts say could change the balance between unions and management.
But union leaders and business representatives disagree on the way the legislation could tilt the scales.
The bill, which would make it illegal for employers to permanently replace striking workers, has the support of all but three members of Maryland's congressional delegation. The three lawmakers say they have yet to decide how they will vote.
The bill is scheduled to come before the House of Representatives Wednesday. The Senate vote is expected later in the summer.
Congressional observers say the legislation probably will pass both the House and Senate, but the measure may not have enough support to override a veto that President Bush has promised.
"This bill is not a labor-law reform, but a blatant power grab that would give unions tremendous new powers in collective bargaining negotiations," said Earle K. Shawe, managing partner Shawe & Rosenthal, a Baltimore law firm with a national practice representing management in labor and employment disputes.
But union members say that, without job protection, workers do not have an effective right to strike.
Although the law has allowed employers to replace strikers, they say that it has been only in recent years that management has exercised that right. They cite President Reagan's firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 as the turning point. Since then, permanent replacement workers were hired during long, bitter strikes at Eastern Airlines and Greyhound.
Opponents of the bill argue that there has been no trend toward replacing workers.
But the AFL-CIO conducted its own study that showed replacing workers became more prevalent last year. In 1990, approximately 11 percent of 243,000 workers involved in major strikes were permanently replaced, the labor organization said.
The debate comes at a time when workers at two Baltimore plants are on strike. Some 3,200 members of the United Auto Workers walked off their jobs at the General Motors van plant on June 24 to protest what they consider unsafe staffing levels. The company did not hire replacement workers and the plant is not operating.
On July 1, 300 members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 1010 went on strike against the G. Heileman Brewing Co. after rejecting the company's wage proposals and benefits package. That company is operating with salaried employees and an unspecified number of temporary replacement workers.
A bill to guarantee workers their jobs at the end of a strike died in Congress last year. This year the AFL-CIO has made it a legislative priority.
Members of the UAW, Teamsters and other unions last week rallied at the Dundalk office of Rep. Helen D. Bentley, R-2nd, because of her failure to support the legislation.
"You always feel like you're at risk," said Dominick Celano, a striking brewery worker who attended the rally.
Bentley said she has not made up her mind on how she will vote on the bill. Her reservation, she said, stems from concern that the bill may be used by non-union workers to take advantage of their employers. She said she wants to be assured that the legislation will apply only to protecting the jobs of union members.
Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-1st, and Constance A. Morella, R-8th, say they also have not decided how they will vote on the legislation.
But Bentley is receiving pressure because she has a large number of union workers in her district.
Shawe said that the legislation threatens 50 years of labor law. In 1938, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employers did have the right to hire permanent replacements.
To change that law, Shawe said, would give unions a monopoly over a unionized employer's supply of labor. "Employers would totally lose their ability to manage and control labor costs," he said.
"The right to strike is not a right to say we're the only people who can work for you," he added.
The bill before Congress would still permit employers to hire temporary replacement workers for the duration of the strike. But Shawe said employers would have difficulty finding workers who would agree to short-term employment.
At Heileman that has not been the case. Foster Walton, a company spokesman, said that the brewery has been able to hire replacement workers, even though it is made clear to them that the jobs are temporary. "Sometimes you have a problem getting real good quality," he said. "But generally the people in FTC Baltimore are good."
Heileman also hired temporary workers during a strike in 1985 that lasted 13 weeks.
Shawe said the legislation could hurt small businesses more than large businesses. While a large plant, such as General Motors, could not practically replace all 3,200 of its striking workers, small operations, with only 20 union workers, might be able to do so.
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md. called the right to strike without fear of reprisal an "essential part of the bargaining process."