Labor Secretary William E. Brock predicted today that despite the nation's $148 billion trade deficit in 1985, Congress will not pass major trade legislation this year.
"If we could find some common ground on trade to improve this country's competitive circumstances, I think it would be wonderful," Brock said. "It is difficult for me to believe that is possible, given the environment today, particularly in the Congress."
Brock, attending the annual winter meeting of the 35-member AFL-CIO executive council, said that most of the trade bills pending in Congress are simplistic, "protectionist" solutions that would backfire by prompting economically devastating retaliation by U.S. trading partners.
But AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, responding to Brock's statement, said that if Congress fails to pass a trade bill or if President Reagan again vetoes one, voters will do some retaliating of their own, later this year and in 1988, because they are angry about the flood of imports that has eliminated an estimated 3 million jobs in this country.
"No administration is permanent, and all politicians are provisional," Kirkland said.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) told the AFL-CIO on Monday that he is confident Congress will pass a trade law this year. But Brock said today that "Tip just had a bad morning. He must have had the wrong breakfast. He got all confused. He's wrong."
"What I am worried about is that the people who have really thought about trade in the Congress are a minority," added Brock, a former U.S. trade representative and a former U.S. senator. "And with all the heat, all the emotion, all the vituperation" on the issue, a counterproductive bill could be passed. Brock said the only type of bill with a chance to pass and not be vetoed by the president would be a "relatively modest" and limited attempt to refine trade rules.
In December Reagan vetoed labor-backed legislation that would have rolled back apparel and textile imports from the East to 1984 levels and limited them to 1 percent annual growth in the future. Unions and industry lobbyists are planning an attempt to override the veto. Brock said the most problematic of the current bills is one sponsored by Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) that would impose a 25 percent surcharge on countries with large trade imbalances that use trading practices considered unfair by some people in this country.
In other developments here, the AFL-CIO moved to solve one of its longstanding problems: costly and bitter competition among unions vying to organize the same workers. In the last two years, for instance, five unions spent more than $12 million competing to unionize Ohio public employes.
The labor federation announced that it is setting up a mandatory arbitration process under which an "umpire" will attempt to decide which union has jurisdiction. Former United Auto Workers president Douglas Fraser was named as one of three "umpires."
On another matter of labor concern, Brock suggested he may require farmers to provide field toilets and drinking water for workers. Brock has set an April 1987 deadline for enacting a federal rule if more states do not adopt stringent rules. Only 13 states have any form of standard. Brock said that "not nearly enough [states] are moving fast enough."
In policy statements issued today, the AFL-CIO called for a major tax increase, cuts or a freeze in defense spending and increases in unemployment benefit programs.