WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives, setting the stage for a critical test of organized labor's ability to regroup under a Democratic administration, voted 239-190 yesterday to ban U.S. businesses from permanently replacing workers who go on strike for economic reasons.
The bill is the highest legislative priority of organized labor, whose political clout has declined along with its membership in recent years. It is vehemently opposed by business groups, who say it would give unions an unfair advantage in labor disputes.
Although the House approved a virtually identical measure by a similar margin two years ago, the earlier vote was purely symbolic because the bill faced a Senate filibuster and certain presidential veto. The out come was so evident that Senate leaders never even brought the issue to its floor.
This time, the House's endorsement is an important step toward a showdown between President Clinton, who is under pressure to fulfill a campaign promise to a key constituency, and Senate Republicans, who once again have threatened to wield the filibuster weapon.
Some House Democrats attempted unsuccessfully to delay the vote until the Senate acted first. Citing the president's abandoned stimulus program and his endangered energy tax as examples, some members said they are increasingly skittish about supporting Mr. Clinton on controversial issues if it appears he may be unable to push them through the Senate.
The task of winning Senate approval of the striker-replacement bill appears even more difficult with last week's election of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, which left the Democrats five votes short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster.
Although it has been legal for decades, the tactic of permanently replacing striking workers was virtually never used before the 1980s because businesses traditionally found it too expensive to replace trained and experienced workers with new employees.
But the practice gained sudden popularity during the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. It was used in a series of high-profile labor disputes involving such companies as Continental and Eastern airlines, International Paper and Greyhound.
The number of strikes dropped dramatically over the same period, as did membership in labor unions.
Supporters of the bill argued during debate that the right to strike ismeaningless if businesses have the option of permanently replacing workers. The practice is "a tool for those businesses more interested in union-breaking than negotiating in good faith," said Rep. John Joseph Moakley, D-Mass.
Striking, added Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn., is "the most basic right of workers, the only real source of power for workers in the collective bargaining process."
Opponents of the bill said employers do not abuse their option under current law to hire permanent replacements, and warned that the legislation would tilt the balance of power too far in the direction of unions.
They also said that the main effect of the bill would be to help union organizing efforts because it would apply only to unionized workplaces and those companies where employees have petitioned for an election of recognition at least 30 days prior to a strike.
"If you have a situation where there's no downside to striking, you promote economic chaos," Rep. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said. "I don't think we want to go back to an era of significant labor dispute in this country at a time when job creation is so important and so difficult."
The legislation would apply only to strikes called for economic reasons, such as higher wages and benefits. Under current law, employers already are prevented from hiring permanent replacements when workers strike over unfair labor practices.