WASHINGTON -- It's no secret that President Clinton in pushing in this election year for an increase in the hourly minimum wage has more than the American working stiff's interests at heart. With Congress in the hands of the Republicans, the effort is a no-lose situation politically for him -- either the Republicans swallow hard and pass it, or they reject it and enable the president to paint them as the hard-hearted enemies of Joe Sixpack.
The Republicans, recognizing that the president and fellow Democrats have done such a good public-relations job in selling the minimum-wage boost that they may have to go along, first countered with an offer to bring up the proposal as part of a package including two other provisions -- repeal of the 4.3 cent gas tax and passage of a bill, vigorously opposed by organized labor, known as the TEAM Act.
Before this tentative counterproposal was crafted by the Republicans, Bob Dole as Senate majority leader pointedly observed that any minimum-wage legislation brought to the Senate floor would have "some other features of an amendment that the Democrats might not be so crazy about," and the TEAM Act was an example.
TEAM stands for the Teamwork for Employees and Management Act. It would amend the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 to overturn a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board two years ago that an Indiana employer had violated a provision barring LTC "employer-dominated" meetings at which issues normally of union concern, such as wages, were discussed.
Business interests like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argue that the ruling can prevent employers from meeting with their employees to discuss ways to improve the company's operations to their mutual benefit. "It's critical for employees and employers in the '90s workplace," says Robert Raasch, an issues associate at the chamber. The 1935 act, he says, "has never been updated to accommodate [the challenges of] the global workplace." The chamber also cites a Princeton study that found that employees prefer, by 3 to 1, such employee teams to union collective bargaining.
Peggy Taylor, legislative director for the AFL-CIO, argues that the TEAM Act would enable employers to select employees who were not elected as representatives of the whole work force with whom to discuss such conditions of work as pay, flex time and benefits and "do everything but sign a union contract."
A sop to business
With business staunchly opposed to any minimum-wage increase, the TEAM Act could be a sop to business interests, but the Democratic congressional leadership has been adamant against permitting a Senate vote on it. The House passed the legislation last year but not by a large enough margin to overcome a promised veto from President Clinton.
The Democrats have been pressing for separate votes on minimum wage and the gas-tax repeal, sidestepping of the TEAM Act for the present at least. According to a representative of Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott, that appears to be what the outcome will be. If so, it will be more cement in the often politically unproductive relationship between the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO and another success for the Democratic leadership's strategy of digging in its heels.
Passing minimum wage without the TEAM Act attached can be a big winner for the Democrats with organized labor, which has stepped up its political alliance with the Democratic Party since the election of an insurgent group headed by John Sweeney of the Service Employees union as president of the AFL-CIO.
The Federation is undertaking a $35 million "education" program of its members that amounts to a comprehensive effort, largely through television ads, to sharply reduce or end the Republican majority in the House. It is also planning a "Union Summer" of intensified organizing that the TEAM Act could inhibit if somehow it could overcome the Clinton veto.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 5/22/96