WASHINGTON -- Once again, with the successful Republican-led filibuster against the striker replacement bill, organized labor has taken it on the chops.
Coupled with last year's failure to defeat the North American Free Trade Agreement, the loss of the measure to protect strikers against what the unions still call "scabs" taking their members' jobs permanently marks a low point in Big Labor's legislative clout.
The inability of the Clinton administration to deliver on this
high-priority bill for organized labor has some pro-labor legislators, such as Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, grousing about the level of effort made by the White House to overcome the filibuster.
Harkin, who fought Clinton for their party's presidential nomination in 1992 but then backed him energetically, complained that there wasn't one-tenth of the effort on this that there was on NAFTA, which the administration pushed and won over the vociferous protests of labor.
In the wake of the NAFTA vote, some key labor leaders vowed retribution on Democrats who voted for it. But that threat had little serious impact on primary elections this spring and isn't expected to have much more this fall. By and large, labor licked its wounds, vowed to continue its opposition to what it considers damaging and unfair trade policies toward foreign competitors, and focused on other legislative goals, such as striker replacement.
According to Rex Hardesty, spokesman for the AFL-CIO, the Clinton White House worked hard to win striker replacement, holding 50 of the Senate's 56 senators and winning over three Republicans. But 60 votes were needed to cut off the filibuster, so even had the six defecting Democrats from Southern and border states stayed on the party reservation, the effort would still have fallen short.
Passing striker replacement would have helped salve the wounds opened between the administration and labor by the fierce NAFTA fight. There remains some hope that the issue can be brought up again later this year in a way that it can be passed on a majority vote, but it's considered a slim chance.
Under existing law, employers may not replace workers who have struck over what they allege to be unfair labor practices. But if the issue is wages, hours or other economic matters, the workers now face the legal loss of their jobs to workers brought in by management during a strike.
Meanwhile, labor does have a reminder in the striker replacement vote that on basic labor issues its best friend is the Democratic Party and that, with a few exceptions, the Republican Party still votes, in the Senate anyway, as if it is the party of big business.
Such a reminder is important to the Clinton administration as it gears up for the major legislative fight of the year, over health care reform. While it is not as clearly a "labor issue" of the sort that striker replacement is, health care is extremely important to union members, and the administration is counting heavily on financial and manpower help from Big Labor in winning the battle of public opinion over it.
The imperative of enacting health care reform has helped cool the resentment in labor ranks over the passage of NAFTA and if some Democratic health plan gets through this year, labor will no doubt claim it as a legislative victory. But the loss of the striker replacement bill points up labor's weak record on the big ones that are clearly in its domain.
In the Senate at least, labor is likely to have an even harder time getting its favorite legislation passed after November. Two of the Senate's most outspokenly pro-labor members, Democrats Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio and Donald Riegle of Michigan, are retiring.
One anti-labor Republican, Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, said of striker replacement during the debate: "This bill the unions' dying gasp. Unions are dying, and good riddance." That vitriolic view is not the predominant one in Congress, but it does suggest how the filibuster in determined Republican hands can frustrate a labor movement that no longer has the political muscle it once enjoyed.