If Congress really wants to move the country toward greater labor-management cooperation, it can begin by passing the Workplace Fairness Act, legislation to prohibit employers from "permanently replacing" workers who exercise their legal right to strike.

The bill is designed to correct a long-standing, judicially created anomaly in the law that says: "You have a right to strike. You cannot be fired for it. But you can be permanently replaced."For more than 50 years, America's national policy has been to promote good faith collective bargaining as a means of providing for the peaceful and orderly resolution of disputes over wages and working conditions.

At the very core of this policy is the express right of working people to engage in concerted activities without fear of employer reprisal. Indeed, the National Labor Relations Act states clearly and unequivocally that nothing in it shall "be construed so as either to interfere with or impede or diminish in any way the right to strike."

This employee right helped provide some balance to offset management's economic power and is the foundation for a system under which management and trade unions faithfully represent different and sometimes opposing interests. Described with the somewhat misleading and pejorative term "adversarial relationship," this system helped produce steady economic growth and improved living standards for the bulk of America's work force.

That is, until the 1980s.

Though the permanent replacement loophole has existed since a 1938 Supreme Court decision, employers rarely used it until a decade ago, when an increasing number of them saw it as an opportunity to bypass the collective bargaining system and establish unilateral control of the workplace.

It's happened at Eastern Airlines, International Paper, Greyhound and at hundreds of lesser-known companies. For some employers, the use of permanent replacements has become an incentive to provoke strikes. Rather than bargain in good faith toward a mutually acceptable agreement, they instead seek to rid themselves of the union. In many cases, employers have advertised for permanent replacements even before negotiations begin.

One study showed that more than two-thirds of all workers who were permanently replaced in 1990 were striking over health care as a major issue.

The net result is to signal the employer's intent to destroy the union, to harden bargaining stances on both sides, and to lengthen strikes for months and even years. These long and bitter disputes have a devastating effect on the lives of thousands of workers. They have destroyed once-profitable companies and shattered communities.

The Workplace Fairness Act would not prevent employers from operating during a strike with supervisors and temporary replacement workers. It would not promote strikes, as some have claimed, but rather would encourage reasoned compromise and the settlement of labor disputes through the system of collective bargaining that has served this nation well for decades.

For America's workplaces and America's economic future, the choice is clear - labor and management working together with mutual respect, or management by intimidation and fear.

By passing the Workplace Fairness Act, Congress would take a critical first step toward making the right choice.