Close call on 'Strikebreaker bill'


Local business people are dismayed, but union leaders are thrilled, that Maryland's two U.S. senators are preparing to vote for a proposal that is viewed as the single most important labor bill this Congress -- a federal ban on hiring permanent replacements for striking workers.

The vote on S. 55, known as the "Strikebreaker bill," might come as soon as next week, say staffers in Sen. Barbara Mikulski's office.

Or it might not come at all.

The bill, which is co-sponsored by Maryland Democrats Mikulski and Sen. Paul Sarbanes, may face a Republican filibuster.

Erin Callahan, spokeswoman for Senator Mikulski, says the Democrats believe they have the 51 votes they need to pass the bill, but may not push the bill to a vote if they can't gather the 60 needed to kill a filibuster.

Union and business lobbying of a few key senators over the next several days could make all the difference to the bill, those familiar with the fight say.

Local workers and managers say much is riding on the lobbyingeffort.

Harry Baughan, vice president for manufacturing at Poly-Seal Inc. in Baltimore, which recently hired about 60 permanent replacements to end an eight-week Steelworkers strike, said a ban would have hurt both his company and his workers.

After several weeks of attempting to persuade the workers to come back to work, Poly-Seal started recruiting replacements in order to give the union members a "reality check," he said.

When the strikers realized that there were "a lot of people who were very happy to work for what we offered," the members voted to accept the proposal, he said.

Without the right to hire replacements, the strike would have dragged on, and the plastic bottle cap maker would have lost more business, and might have had to lay off workers. If the workers had forced the company to pay higher-than-market wages, Poly-Seal might have lost business and again had to lay off workers, he said. "The way the law is now, nobody has an advantage," Mr. Baughan said.

But that's not how Deborah Murphy sees it. As long as managers can permanently replace striking workers, managers will have the advantage, she said.

Ms. Murphy, who lives in Annapolis, faced a replacement threat when she and 20,000 other flight attendants struck American Airlines last November.

She and the other flight attendants were "terrified" of losing their jobs, but felt forced to the strike because of American's constant demand for concessions, she said.

The replacement threat gives managers the right to keep demanding give-backs because they can say: " 'Take it . . . or lose your job,' " Ms. Murphy said.

Passage of the bill is vital for all workers, not just union members, she said. "There is a ripple effect," she said. Whenever unionized workers accept a reduction in pay and benefits "that keeps wages and benefits low" for nonunion workers at competing firms, she said.

Ms. Murphy, who spent part of last week lobbying senators, said she fears that the Senate may not vote on the bill at all.

Although President Clinton has promised to support the bill, she said she hasn't heard of any senators receiving presidential arm-twisting to make sure there are enough votes to stop the filibuster.

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