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EMPLOYERS HAVE had the right to hire permanent replacements for strikers for more than half a century.

But from the end of World War II until the early 1980s, such action usually was rejected by most employers. There was a feeling that it would lead to a repeat of the violence between strikers and their replacements that characterized the Republic Steel strike of 1937 and industrial strikes in the early part of the century. And it has, certainly, sparked violence in the current Greyhound strike.

There was also a fear that replacing strikers would alienate customers, something that hasn't noticeably happened as members of the Me Generation born after World War II have become consumers.

Today, there is considerably less reluctance by corporations to rid themselves of employees when they strike by hiring workers to permanently take over. That has tipped the balance of labor-management struggles heavily in favor of the companies.

The erosion of labor's most effective tool made it easier for American businesses to win unprecedented demands for wage and benefit concessions during the past decade, even when the companies were making a healthy profit.

"The strike is no longer an economic tool," says Robert McGlotten, the AFL-CIO's legislative director.

While federal labor law guarantees a worker's right to strike, the strategy of using permanent replacements amounts to indirectly firing strikers.

"It is pure doubletalk to say that, although workers can't be discharged for striking, the worker can be permanently replaced," United Auto Workers President Owen Bieber testified at a recent congressional hearing on a labor-backed bill to ban the hiring of replacement workers during a strike.

Once a strike ends, there may be only a few, if any, job openings left for the returning workers -- a threat that management sometimes pointedly makes during contract negotiations.

Hiring permanent replacements is now a common and, for management, devastingly effective practice -- as labor has discovered to its dismay here in the case of Russer Foods and nationally in the strikes by Greyhound and Eastern Air Line workers.

In an increasing number of circumstances, strikes have become economic suicide for workers.

The legal precedent for the practice of hiring permanent replacement workers dates back to a 1938 Supreme Court ruling. Yet it was not until President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981 and ordered them replaced with new hires that American businesses began to follow suit.

There is a strong argument that the severe recession of the early 1980s, increasing competition from cheap foreign labor, along with the resulting weakness of industrial unions made hiring replacements an attractive idea that companies would have put into practice even if the air controllers had not been fired.

The traffic controllers, after all, were public employees staging an illegal strike in which the penalties under federal law included their replacement. Private business has gone beyond that by replacing workers engaged in legal strikes.

It's also significant that the increase in the use of replacement workers coincides with the large number of company takeovers in the past decade and a lack of concern for the workers involved. Greyhound, Continental Airlines, Eastern Air Lines and TWA all are national examples of companies taken over in the '80s that have had no hesitancy in permanently replacing strikers.

A recent congressional study of seven unions found that, while strikes in those unions dropped by 50 percent between 1980 and 1987, the number of strikers replaced by permanent workers rose 300 percent.

The number of strikes involving 1,000 or more workers, which ranged from 200 to 400 a year from the end of World War II through the 1970s, has averaged only 60 a year since 1982.

Greyhound is typical of the long struggle that grows out of contemporary strikes. Unions, no longer able to force an employer to meet their demands at the bargaining table in the short run, are turning to long-term strategies, trying to hold out long enough to drive management out. Sometimes, as in the recent takeover of Colt Firearms by the United Auto Workers, they hire investment bankers to try to help them take over weakened companies through existing employee stock ownership programs.

But labor's biggest effort is to push for the legislation introduced in the House and Senate to outlaw permanent replacements for strikes. The bills also would overturn a Supreme Court decision last year that gave preferential seniority to strikers who crossed a picket line and returned to work.

But even national labor leaders admit it probably will take years to build enough public support to get such legislation passed. Nevertheless, the proposals have business worried.

"It's an issue where the blood boils very quickly," said a lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers. "It's an issue where the AFL-CIO could get very monolithic, because it's an issue that affects all segments of the labor movement."

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