WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and organized labor suffered a stinging defeat yesterday when the Senate rejected legislation that would have prevented American corporations from firing striking union members and permanently replacing them with nonunion workers.
Concluding one of the fiercest political battles between management and labor in a generation, union supporters in the Senate failed by a 53-47 vote to gain the three-fifths majority needed to break a Republican filibuster on the striker replacement measure.
The Senate's Democratic leadership scheduled another vote today to stop the filibuster, in which opponents use stalling tactics to block legislative action, but neither side expects a reversal.
The bill -- called the Striker Replacement Act in the House but renamed the Worker Fairness Act in the Senate to mute conservative opposition -- was at the top of organized labor's legislative agenda and was one of the Labor Department's priorities under Secretary Robert B. Reich.
Yesterday's loss came after hours of sometimes passionate debate over the bill's merits and amid several prominent Democrats' assertions that the failure to back the legislation amounted to an end to workers' basic right to strike.
"The Republicans made up their minds to filibuster this issue," said Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, an Ohio Democrat. "We'll lose, but not because the majority of the Senate doesn't want it."
Business lobbyists who worked fiercely to kill the bill were ecstatic after their victory. "This is a major blow to organized labor," said a triumphant Richard L. Lesher, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Passage of the legislation "would have destroyed the balance of power that has existed for more than 50 years between labor and management," Mr. Lesher added.
"We hope that this is the death knell for organized labor's confrontational approach on labor-management issues," said Dan Yager, a lobbyist with the Labor Policy Association, a business trade group.
For the labor movement, the defeat was especially bitter because it comes at a time when corporate America is showing an increased willingness to fire striking workers rather than bargain with them to hammer out new contracts. Yesterday's vote added to a long string of setbacks over the past decade as unions have watched their economic power and membership erode.
Labor unions and their allies in Congress argue that the use of permanent replacements for striking workers sharply increased in the 1980s, after President Ronald Reagan fired unionized air traffic controllers in 1981, thus signaling the business community that the federal government approved of the practice.
Union leaders acknowledge that federal law never prohibited the use of replacement workers, but that until the Reagan era, there was a strong cultural stigma attached to the practice that made business executives reluctant to fire their striking employees. As a result, they insist that a new federal ban is needed if the union movement is to be able to use the threat of a strike as an effective lever during contract talks.
Even as the Senate was voting yesterday, for example, Caterpillar Inc. was hiring workers to keep its assembly lines rolling in the face of its second bitter strike in two years.
During Caterpillar's last strike in the midst of the 1992 presidential campaign, candidate Bill Clinton made a high profile visit to striking workers in Illinois and vowed to push for the striker replacement ban if he was elected president. That 1992 strike eventually ended in a union defeat when workers agreed to return to their jobs after the company threatened to find permanent replacements.
The Bureau of National Affairs, a Washington research organization, reported recently that 82 percent of companies surveyed said they would either use replacement workers or threaten their use in coming contract talks with their unions if Congress does not pass the striker-replacement ban.
Business organizations, however, say they have not been hiring more replacement workers. They point to a 1991 study by the General Accounting Office which shows that, while permanent replacements were used in 17 percent of all strikes in 1989, those incidents only covered 3 percent of striking workers nationwide.
Recent business studies also show that permanent replacementshave been used steadily since existing labor laws were passed in the 1930s, disproving a widespread perception that the practice sharply increased after the air traffic controllers were fired in 1981.
Mr. Clinton's promise to sign a striker replacement ban if passed by Congress helped energize union support for his candidacy, especially in the general election campaign against President George Bush, who had vowed to veto the bill if it ever reached his desk. The last congressional battle over the striker-replacement ban also died in the Senate in 1992, while Mr. Bush was in the White House.
Mr. Clinton called key Democratic senators from Europe this week, but despite his campaign pledge, he did not mount an aggressive, public campaign in support of the legislation, as he has done on other high-profile initiatives like last year's North American Free Trade Agreement.
Union leaders said yesterday that they were satisfied with the administration's effort in support of the striker replacement ban, and acknowledged that the ideological battle between business and labor over the issue was so heated that a White House lobbying campaign could do little to budge swing votes.
"We felt the White House was trying," said Rex Hardesty, chief spokesman for the AFL-CIO. "We are satisfied that the White House did what we could reasonably expect. We also know that they were not successful."