The House delivered a defeat to organized labor yesterday, narrowly defeating a union-backed bill that would have required companies to provide at least 90 days' advance notice of plant closings or mass layoffs.
The 203-to-208 vote followed intense lobbying by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other business groups that said the bill would hurt firms by injecting unions and government into decisions best left to company executives forced to close plants on short notice.
The AFL-CIO and a number of major unions have pushed plant-closing legislation for 12 years, arguing that workers and communities suffer severe economic and social disruption when factories close abruptly, without a chance to pursue alternatives to closings or to set up worker-assistance programs.
"I think it is a low point in Congress when people quite blindly say that any kind of potential inconvenience to a business is improper government intervention, no matter how moral that intervention is," said Rep. William Ford (D-Mich.), who has sponsored the bill since 1973.
But Rep. Hank Brown (R-Colo.) a leading opponent, said backers of the bill showed "economic illiteracy and a basic misunderstanding of how the economy works. The bill harmed American workers, because when you have to give early notice of a closing, you can lose your suppliers, your bank, your workers and your customers."
Labor Secretary William E. Brock opposed the bill, saying it would restrict businesses and could cause even larger business failures if failing plants were forced by legislation to delay closing. Brock has created a commission to study ways to prevent or minimize the impact of plant closings.
More than 5 million workers were victims of plant closings or permanent layoffs in the last five years, according to the Labor Department. Many union contracts already include provision for advance notice of closings, but supporters of the bill had cited numerous cases of unannounced or last-minute shutdowns that they said had devastated workers and communities.
The current bill, cosponsored by Reps. William Clay (D-Mo.) and Silvio Conte (R-Mass.), was the first plant-closing legislation to make it to the House floor. The original version of this year's bill would have also required companies to "consult in good faith" with labor unions to seek alternatives to shutdowns.
But after heavy business lobbying, the consultation provision was deleted from the bill in a 215-to-93 vote last Thursday. The final version defeated yesterday also had been amended to include only those firms laying off 100 or more workers or more than 30 percent of their work force.
Following seven hours of often-heated debate last week and again yesterday, 53 conservative Democrats joined 155 Republicans to defeat the measure, which was favored by 183 Democrats and 20 Republicans.
The bill was one of few labor-management issues to come before Congress in recent years, and "this vote is evidence of the growing number of business-minded Democrats in growth states" of the South and West, said Mark A. de Bernardo, manager of labor law for the Chamber of Commerce. The chamber had characterized the bill as a "fundamental assault on the private enterprise system."
AFL-CIO legislative director Ray Denison said, "It is unfortunate for America that business interests ganged up to defeat a very modest plant-closing bill." Denison called business groups hypocritical in calling for labor-management cooperation but lobbying to defeat a bill that was intended to have unions and companies "get together to solve mutual problems and lessen adverse impact on stricken communities."