Union Leaders Optimistic about Labor's Relations with Clinton Administration

Article excerpt

ORGANIZED labor, once the backbone of the Democratic coalition, did not especially want a "different kind of Democrat," as President-elect Clinton has styled himself.

Observing his administration form, labor leaders seem to have the overwhelming relief of watching the thaw of an ice age for labor's interests and a gnawing uncertainty about how warm it will get.

When two top economic posts in the Clinton administration went to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas as treasury secretary and Rep. Leon Panetta (D) of California as director of the Office of Management and Budget, many labor advocates were disappointed.

But when Robert Reich of Harvard University was named labor secretary, the gloom lifted.

"It's been 12 bad years," says Douglas Fraser, a former United Auto Workers president who teaches at Wayne State University. Union officials are relieved, he says, to have a labor secretary nominated who is familiar with organized labor.

Mr. Reich says things unions like to hear about work and national investment, but he seldom mentions unions. In his book, "The Work of Nations," he writes about them on five pages without saying what role they should have in a revitalized economy.

But because Reich is a friend and close adviser to Clinton, some labor officials see his appointment as elevating the job from a second-tier post to a central one. "He's not only smart and innovative, but he can talk to the president," says Ray Abernathy, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union.

"It's been a long time since we had a friend in the Labor Department," says Dave Stack, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists.

"The starting point is that labor has suffered through, not just an unfriendly administration, but a hostile administration," Mr. Fraser says. Even labor secretaries who sympathized on some labor issues, he says, were struck down by White House officials. Labor leaders confident

Union leaders are confident that the balance of power between labor and management will shift in their direction. They already consider a new law banning the permanent replacement of striking workers to be a done deal. The law has support in Congress, and Mr. Clinton has promised to sign it.

The question of whether companies could permanently replace strikers was not a prominent one until President Reagan made an example of the air traffic controllers' union, breaking it by hiring and training new controllers. …