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Unions rally for fight on labor law changes

Organized labor, confronted by management's stiffening resistance to unions, is massing forces to oppose congressional efforts that would weaken labor when bargaining collapses and workers strike.

Unions are concerned about what they consider to be "a fundamental rewriting of labor laws that date back to the New Deal." Leaders say candidly that they face a very hard fight -- and perhaps a losing one -- this year to stave off tighter restrictions on labor in the face of conservative strength in the Reagan administration and in Congress.

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Labor's legislative worries include:

* Moves to increase the criminal liability of strikers for picket line disturbances by bringing them under present federal extortion lawes.

* Efforts, well under way, to deny food stamp aid to families of workers who strike.

Howard Marlowe, associate legislative director of ALF-CIO charged in Washington that the moves "obviously are intended to intimidate workers from striking for their legitimate rights."

These two proposals have largely been overshadowed by legislative attacks on the 50-year-old Davis-Bacon Act, which regulates wage rates on federal construction projects, and on provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). The building industry has made Davis-Bacon the target of a "battle plan" reported to be backed nationally by a $500,000 fund.

Congressional conservatives call Davis-Bacon "wasteful, "inflationary," and a "rip-off" of American taxpayers. Labor defends the law as a sound basis for industrial stability in the construction industry.

Conservatives and business generally criticize OSHA as inflationary because of the costs of complying with provisions of the law which they say are meaningless for most employers.

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The proposed legislation affecting strike activities, although overshadowed by Davis-Bacon and OSHA, is considered crucial by union leaders. At a time when polls indicate that many workers are alienated from their national unions, leaders are particularly worried about maintaining bargaining militancy and the loyalty of members.

AFL-CIO contends "the national Right to Work Committee and other antiunion groups are primarily behind congressional attacks on . . . workers striking for . . . legitimate rights."

Barring food stamps to needy families of strikers would affect only about 1 percent of unionists who walk out, according to union estimates. But these would be the lowest paid workers, difficult to organize and hardest to keep in unions. Loss of food stamps could lead to defections.

Bringing picket-line activities under the federal extortion law is considered by labor to be far more serious. Strike disturbances are far more common when bargaining deadlocks. They are dealt with now by state and city police and courts with "at most a slap on wrists," many struck employers complain. Sponsors of legislation now before Congress argue that threats or acts of violence on picket lines are a form of extortion -- an effort to force something from a struck employer -- and that they should be dealt with under federal extortion law.

"If federal jurisdiction is extended to picket-line violence," says AFL-CIO's Mr. Marlowe, "anybody who goes out on a picket line has to be thinking about the possibility of 20 years in the federal slammer and a $10,000 fine." Those are the penalties possible for a conviction under the federal extortion law.

Now Mr. Marlowe says, "Somebody who throws a punch is usually prosecuted [ under state or city laws] for a misdemeanor -- certainly less than a year in jail and a heck of a lot less than a $10,000 fine." Actually, jail sentences a re rare now and fines generally run less than $100.

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