WASHINGTON -- House Democratic leaders predicted that House members would vote overwhelmingly today in favor of a bill that would prohibit employers from permanently replacing striking workers.
Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Majority Whip William H. Gray of Pennsylvania, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said the bill would have an easy ride through the House.
"We will adopt this and turn around a decade of unfairness," Hoyer said yesterday. "We will ensure that the promise of America is the reality of America."
The measure would overturn a 1938 Supreme Court decision that legalized hiring replacement workers when a strike protests economic issues, such as wages, but not when it is fighting unfair labor practices.
Two proposed amendments, which would allow companies to hire permanent replacement workers after eight weeks and 12 weeks, were not expected to be adopted.
Management has had an upper hand in collective bargaining since the early 1980s, when then-President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers, Gephardt said. Reagan and then-Vice President George Bush sent out a message that "if you want to be competitive by busting unions, breaking contracts, raiding pensions or dissolving health care plans, go ahead," Gephardt said.
Bush has made clear that he would veto the legislation.
Jack Sheehan, the president's assistant for the United Steel Workers of America, said that if public pressure were strongly in favor of the measure, it could sway Bush. But public opinion on the subject is unclear, he said.
"The public may not like strikes," Sheehan said. "The question is, do they also say workers should be fired for conduct that's their right. If workers can be fired for exercising that right, they do not have a right."
Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, defending the administration's opinion at a House hearing in March, said the legislation would end a 50-year history of an effective collective bargaining system.
The proposed legislation would eliminate a check on precipitous striking, promote increased labor unrest, disrupt the flow of commerce and be particularly burdensome to small businesses, she said.
"We are concerned that if the right to permanently replace economic strikers were prohibited, there would be little incentive for unions to moderate the use of the strike weapon," Martin said.
She also argued that use of permanent replacements is limited by law. Workers who strike to protest unfair labor practices may be reinstated, she said.
Allowing employers to hire temporary workers balances management and labor needs and allows each side to use their "economic tools," Sheehan said. Unions can withhold their labor and employers may counter by continuing to operate the plant, he said.
But, he said, "If you strike under current law, you can lose your job. You should be able to strike without losing your job. That's the issue."