Firm Backer of Reagan's Policies

Undersecretary of Labor Ford B. Ford took charge of the department on an acting basis yesterday in the wake of Secretary Raymond J. Donovan's decision to take a leave of absence to fight his indictment on criminal charges.

The switch is not expected to result in substantial changes in policies the department has pursued under President Reagan.

Ford, 62, was a longtime California state official, lobbyist and Reagan associate whom Reagan appointed in 1981 to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration. In July 1983, he was promoted to undersecretary. A Virginia native, Ford served as deputy of the California Resources Agency and then as chairman of the state's Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board when Reagan was governor.

Ford and Donovan conferred before Donovan announced his leave of absence, Donovan spokesman Michael Volpe said yesterday. The two had a close working relationship, had lunch together weekly and attended all important policy meetings, Volpe said.

Ford is known to share Reagan and Donovan's support for eliminating many regulatory constraints on business and relaxing enforcement of health and safety laws by telling inspectors to act less like policemen and more like consultants to help businesses improve their work places.

That approach at the mine safety agency earned Ford the strong opposition of the United Mine Workers of America. Union spokesman Joseph Corcoran said the UMW thought Ford had been "dead wrong" in softening the agency's approach to mine inspections and penalties.

Before Ford took over that agency, all violations except technical ones were designated "significant and substantial," which usually meant a substantial fine for the mine owner. Ford narrowed the criteria for significant violations and established a flat $20 fine for all other transgressions.

As a result, the number of so-called "S & S" violations dropped from 101,593 in 1980 to 23,126 in 1982. Average fines fell from $141 in 1980 to $65 in 1983, according to the UMW.

While at the mine safety agency, Ford said he emphasized "cooperation rather than confrontation" with mine operators, and told inspectors that he didn't want citations issued for "nit-picking" violations.

"We at MSHA have taken important steps towards making cooperation more than a catchword," Ford said before being tapped for the No. 2 job at Labor.

On Capitol Hill yesterday, congressional staffers on the labor committees said they expected Ford to continue as caretaker for the programs and policies Donovan pushed. These have come under strong criticism from House Democrats, but have been supported in the Republican-controlled Senate.

"Labor has been a mess" under Donovan, said a staffer for the House Education and Labor subcommittee on labor-management relations. "What he has done is to systematically, either through neglect or design, dismantle many of the programs" designed to protect labor and curb management abuses.

Under Donovan, funds for health and safety and labor-standards enforcement were cut substantially. A subcommittee review of department programs also showed he had sharply reduced enforcement of the program under which companies are required to register with the department when they employ "labor consultants" to thwart unionization.

An aide to Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) offered a different assessment, saying that Donovan had assembled "a good core of people who have gotten a lot done." Among the accomplishments, he said, were the passage of the Job Training Partnership Act, reforms of the scandal-ridden Teamsters union Central States Pension Fund, pension reform and relaxation of some burdensome legislation.

Donovan, the aide said, has received some of the credit for helping Reagan replace the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program, which had been slated for $5 billion in its final year, with the $3.5 billion job-training program in which the government consults new regional "private industry councils" on how to spend job-training funds.

Donovan aide Volpe said, "In a nutshell, there will be no leadership vacuum" under Ford. He added that morale was "quite good."

A sharply different view came from Michael Urquhart, president of the 5,000-member Local 12 of the American Federation of Government Employes. Urguhart said the department had suffered "tremendous demoralization" under Donovan because "people who have developed programs have seen them destroyed . . . by an administration that does not believe in the Labor Department and thinks its goals and mission are better left to private industry."