By Mark Reutter The hiring of replacement workers during strikes is likely to emerge as the "hot-button" labor issue in 1995, a UI labor specialist predicts. With baseball owners drawing up plans to replace striking ballplayers this spring and with attempts by other employers to replace striking workers, confrontation between strikers and replacements appears "all but inevitable," according to Michael H. LeRoy, a professor in the UI Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations. "When Pittston Coal Group hired 1,700 permanent replacements in 1989, strikers responded by littering highways with dangerous jackrocks [spikes welded together] and throwing rocks at passing vehicles," said LeRoy, who has studied the history of strikes in which replacement workers were hired. "Even in garden-variety replacement strikes, some violence is almost always perpetrated by highly frustrated individuals." In a soon-to-be-released study, LeRoy notes that strikers are understandably frustrated because some companies have no intention of reinstating strikers, as required under federal labor laws. In a so-called "economic strike" involving a wage dispute, an employer is duty bound to reinstate strikers after they unconditionally end their walkout and a job vacancy becomes available. However, in a survey of 298 strikes, LeRoy found that employers failed to rehire strikers in 31 percent of the cases between 1982 and 1991. This contrasts with a 24 percent failure-to-rehire rate between 1968 and 1981. In one- third of the cases that came before the National Labor Relations Board between 1985 and 1991, employers were found to have unlawfully discharged one or more strikers. The data suggest, LeRoy writes in the upcoming issue of Yale Law and Policy Review, that "employers began to think more strategically about replacing economic strikers around 1975." Instead of "angrily informing strikers that their employment will be terminated if they fail to return to work before replacements are hired," some employers simply hired the replacements, then let the strikers "languish on the replacement list," never intending to rehire them. By keeping a replacement list, the employer avoided converting the strike into an unfair labor practices dispute that, if won by the union, would require the employer to fire the replacement workers and reinstate the strikers with back pay. LeRoy said this loophole - apparently used by a "small but persistent minority" of employers - should be closed by Congress. "Congress should consider amending the National Labor Relations Act to increase penalties for employer mistreatment of economic strikers," the article concludes. "One idea is to allow the NLRB to award double or treble back-pay damages to economic strikers who are unlawfully discharged and to unfair-labor-practices strikers who are not properly reinstated. This proposal recognizes the generous advantage over strikers that employers already enjoy and seeks to deter employers from unlawfully enlarging upon this advantage."