There's no doubt President Clinton made a mistake in signing an executive order barring companies with federal contracts from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers. By far, the more interesting question is whereClinton will go next - whether he will compound this faux pas. Clinton is severely testing the faith of far more numerous and consequential constituencies by signing the document, which would keep federal contractors from either renewing or getting any new government business if they violate the order. It is entirely possible that many of those constituencies wish the president would concentrate on establishing his own agenda in Congress, instead of allowing Republicans almost a free hand in setting national policy on matters that will have a much longer-term effect, such as welfare reform, tort reform and - the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s favorite - regulatory reform.
At the heart of the issue is the right of Bridgestone/Firestone Tire Co., headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., to bring in permanent outside workers to do the work of strikers. It isinteresting that Bridgestone/Firestone's profits rose substantially while it replaced 4,000 striking workers with 2,400 permanent replacements. The labor-intensive company that makes a lot of money is likely, eventually, to hire more people - and striking workers know it.
Bridgestone/Firestone joined the National Association of Manufacturers in suing to stop Clinton's order from being put into action. The suit contends the executive order gives organized labor the upper hand in any government contract negotiation. What it doesn't say, but should, is that organized efforts to stop work - with the federal blessing to strikers that they cannot be permanently replaced -could paralyze those precious contracts.
One can judge the inanity of the president's move by the high degree of agitation reached by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., the chief defender of the executive order, in a press briefing after the signing. A crimson-faced Kennedy called efforts to stop the order's function ``real attempt[s] to embarrass the president who has issued this proclamation on behalf of working families.''
Bushwa, Ted. The working families to whom Clinton should be appealing don't have strike funds to support them.
By signing this order, Clinton may have felt he would lose no friends by taking to task a foreign company based in a state that, for the first time since 1934, concurrently chose two Republican senators and a Republican governor.
Well, there's still a significant U.S. trade deficit with Japan and the yen is rising steadily against the dollar, making it more costly for Americans to buy Japanese products they've grown to like.
And the Legislative Plaza, historically a New Deal/Great Society lawmaker's bastion on Nashville's Charlotte Avenue, is packed with Democrats to this day. While he may have little direct control over these situations, Clinton did nothing with this order to make consumers of Japanese goods or loyal state-level Democrats anywhere feel confident of his leadership.
A Democrat-controlled Congress tried and failed to pass a law banning striker replacement last year. That should have been a clue to the president this year.
Roger King is Plastics News' East Coast reporter based in Washington.