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Government's role in promoting labor-management cooperation.

Government's role in promoting labor-management cooperation W.J. USERY, JR.

The founding in 1913 of the U.S. Department of Labor represented a landmark in prescribed governmental influence on labor-management relations. The founders of the Labor Department gave the Department the mandate to "foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States, to improve their working conditions and to advance their opportunities for profitable employment."(1)

(1)Public Law 426, 62d Cong.

In 1976, when I became the 15th Secretary of Labor, that mandate stood foremost in my mind. Since its inception, the Department had grown from less than 200 employees administering one child labor law to more than 14,000 employees administering hundreds of laws.

The challenge, as I saw it, was to ensure two basic trusts. First, that I actively address the substantive concerns of the American working people. And second, that I manage the Department efficiently and effectively. While I certainly supported the many hard-working, dedicated career employees who believed in the departmental mission, I also endeavored to instill in each of them the acute awareness that our constituents were all working people of this Nation, regardless of race, age, gender, class, or creed -- that their concerns were our concerns. I believe that ensuring those for fundamental trusts offers my Secretary of Labor his or her greatest professional and bureaucratic challenge.

I have been asked to share with readers the most difficult problem I encountered as Labor Secretary, as well as the achievement in which I took greatest pride. The choices are not easy to make.

My most difficult and trying experience demands an anecdotal telling. It began one day in late summer of 1976. And it began, of all places, on the 18th green at the Burning Tree Country Club near Washington, DC.

President Ford was playing the course, and I had been waiting for his foursome to play out. A foursome ahead of the President included late Teamsters President Frank E. Fitzsimmons.

As we gathered about the 18th green to watch the President finish his round, Fitzimmons told me he planned to ask the President to address the upcoming Teamsters convention in Las Vegas. I felt concerned. The President was running for reelection. The Teamsters were under investigation, and the whole country knew it. I could visualize the possible news stories if the President appeared before the Teamsters convention. Nevertheless, Fitzsimmons approached the President, who agreed to speak.

Advisers at the White House urged the President not to make the appearance, and it was agreed that I would speak at the convention instead. We prepared the speech -- the only speech I recall ever submitting to the White House for approval. To minimize the potential risk, it was decided that I would fly to the convention and return the same day.

At the convention, Fitzsimmons set the stage by attacking the media for recent news coverage of the Teamsters. Of course, the media were present, although they were located in the far top corner of the hall, where Fitzsimmons had arranged to put them. After the tirade, Fitzsimmons introduced me to the convention as his good friend.

One learns to tell a joke or two under such circumstances. So I told a joke about a golfer. The punch line of the story ended with "I don't even believe he belongs in this club." After finishing the joke, and after the laughter died down, I announced to the Teamsters, "Well, when it comes to collective bargaining, I'm a member of this club." Then I made my carefully prepared speech.

The speech went well, and all was fine until the story was reportedly by the media. The wire services ignored the speech but highlighted my "member of this club" remark, characterizing "me as a member of the Teamsters club.

As a result, several U.S. Senators and members of the House called for my resignation as Labor Secretary. I even received the dubious honor of appearing in several Herblock and Oliphant cartoons.

When I next visited the White House, the President smiled and shook my hand. "Well, Bill, welcome to the club." Then he laughed and added, "I sure am glad you were able to get in and out of that speech in Las Vegas without any trouble."

My present humor about the incident, of course, comes with considerable distance and perspective. During the actual occurrence, I suffered greatly. To become the center of controversy while in a Cabinet post is exceedingly uncomfortable. One is embarrassed both personally and professionally. For me, it was the low point of my tenure. But I managed through it because the business of the Labor Department was infinitely more important.

Fortunately, one's failures are brought into healthier focus by one's successes. And as I look back, 1976-77 also stands out as an important and successful time for the Labor Department.

Serving as Labor Secretary while our Nation celebrated its 200th birthday proved one of the high points of my tenure. I grew up in the rural South during the Great Depression. I came up through the ranks of the labor movement, and graduated from the school and hard knocks. To have the President introduce me at the White House, to be seated next to the Vice President, to have the Chief Justice swear me in, and finally, to have such distinguished men listen as I expressed my views in an acceptance speech surpassed all I could have imagined as a young boy in Georgia.

I felt a great sense of honor in representing the interests of the American working people during the Bicentennial year of a Nation founded on democratic freedoms. Industrial democracy, it seemed, had emerged as a natural extension of those freedoms. By the 1970's, though, problems global in scope were chipping away at the progress we had made; inflation, unemployment, and recession hindered economic stability. Jobs became a primary concern.

As Labor Secretary, I took the same pragmatic, hands-on approach that I always take to problemsolving. My successes in solving the practical problems of working people constitute the achievement in which I take greatest pride. President Ford, by his strong support of both me and the Department, deserves inestimable credit for those successes.

No aspect of labor-management relations attracts more publicity or demands more thoughtful, pragmatic action than a strike. As Labor Secretary, I encouraged the resolution of labor-management disputes with strong, effective mediation. Negotiated settlements prevented potentially harmful and lengthy strikes in several cases. When the direct intervention of the Labor Department became necessary, we guided our actions with prudence and fairness. Round-the-clock negotiations helped end the longest strike in the history of the rubber industry, and a potentially crippling nationwide trucking strike was halted after only 3 days.

Less prone to draw publicity -- but equally important -- were major departmental programs aimed at helping American workers adapt to a changing workplace and economic uncertainty. Working with trade associations, national unions, professional organizations, and schools, we launched a program which expanded apprenticeship opportunities in highly skilled occupations. By expanding the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), and by developing special emphasisf programs, we helped address the employment concerns of several million people, including veterans, migrant and seasonal farmworkers, women, and minority group members.

Still more workers were aided by major changes in the unemployment insurance program; more money was made available and coverage was expanded. Concerned about the future of the unemployment insurance program, we instituted long-range planning and established a national commission to recommend changes and improvements.

The Labor Department also acted decisively in carrying out its mandate to improve the working conditions of American wage earners. Despite great resistance, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) made a comprehensive effort to correct the health and safety problems in injury-and illness-prone industries. We made monies available to educational institutions and professional associations to educate the public about job safety and health.

Such programmatic efforts represent one aspect of the positive, pivotal role the U.S. Government historically has played in the lives of American workers. That role is much easier to play, of course, when social values and economic values are aligned. When basic tenets of industrial democracy like collective bargaining and workers' rights clearly make economic sense to both labor and mangement, then the role of the Federal Government is reduced. When the long-term economic benefits of labor-management cooperation become less obvious and conflict emerges, then the need for an expanded role is apt to increase.

In either case, the U.S. Government's role in maintaining a healty environment for cooperative labor-management relations has been -- and remains -- essential. Collective bargaining, the foundation of American industrial democracry, remains fundamental to the well-being of the free enterprise system.

Unfortunately, during recent years, contemporary issues confronting labor-management relations have languished in a kind of purgatory -- an isolated landscape inhabited almost exclusively by labor union leaders and corporate labor relations executives. Critical issues over which these labor and business leaders preside affect all of us, especially in a highly competitive world where events in one corner of the globe affect those in another. But because the issues are often highly controversial and complex, they have been ignored, for the most part, by the remainder of the republic.

That clearly must change if the United States is to remain strong and maintain a leadership role in an emerging, restructured world economy. It is imperative that we openly explore, debate and resolve the labor-management issues challenging the tradition of industrial democracy in America. To do otherwise is to seek solace and hope in ignorance; to do otherwise is to invite economic decline.

Historically, the joint efforts of business and labor built the great productive capacity of our Nation, even though the apparent interests of those two parties have at times been in conflict. The future, too, will be determined by the institutions of business and labor and their respective abilities to adapt to a changeing world, to find mutuality of interest, and to join forces. If we are to understand how that cooperative process has occurred in the past, we simply cannot ignore the role of government.

Until recently, the Federal Government actively sought a positive, pivotal role in labor-management relations. Collective bargaining is but an extension of political democracy, and the U.S. Government since the early years of this century has upheld the rights of American workers -- and at times even encouraged them -- to organize and negotiate with employers. The U.S. Government has played an essential, integral role in the establishment of collective bargaining and American industrial democracy.

Now that we are commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Department of Labor, I sincerely hope the celebrated occasion will force the issues confronting the American working people back to center stage where they will receive not a curtain call but the spotlight of public and political attention. I believe the U.S. Government, through the policies and activities of the Labor Department, can and must help in that process, just as it has done in the past.

We cannot afford to regress down the path of protracted labor-management conflict. Nor can we afford indecision regarding critical issues which demand attention. We must choose, instead, to travel the road of enlightened cooperation between business and labor, each depending on the other. I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that the productive vitality of our great Nation and the American working people hangs in the balance.

"We must travel the road of enlightened cooperation between business and labor...."

W.J. Usery, Jr. served as Secretary of Labor in 1976-77.

PHOTO: W.J. Usery, Jr.
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Title Annotation:Reflections of Eight Former Secretaries
Author:Usery, W.J., Jr.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Feb 1, 1988
Previous Article:Some recollections of a brief tenure.
Next Article:Establishing an agenda for the Department of Labor.

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