On Jan. 3, I introduced a bill to prohibit the permanent replacement of striking workers. Enactment of this legislation is essential if we are to restore balance to our system of labor-management relations.

The right to strike is the only legal means workers have of bringing economic pressure to bear on employers to protect their wages and working conditions.The right to permanently replace striking workers reduces the right to strike to the right to be fired. Since 1981, more than 300,000 workers have lost their jobs merely because they exercised their "legally protected" right to strike.

The permanent replacement of striking workers is both bad economic policy and morally reprehensible. It is a policy that rewards employers for failing to settle labor disputes at the bargaining table and forcing workers into the streets.

It allows employers to effectively repeal the right of Americans to choose to engage in collective bargaining. The right to permanently replace strikers has existed for more than 50 years, but employers seldom resorted to it until recently.

A union can't settle a strike unless it can return its people to work and the employer can't take the strikers back without risking liability to the replacement workers who have been offered permanent status.

The effect of hiring permanent replacements is to deny the employer access to a long-term, stable, skilled work force and to render a strike unsolvable regardless of the issues that caused it.

Recognizing this, it had been considered irresponsible, morally and in a business sense, to resort to hiring permanent replacements. Rather, employers simply sought temporary replacements.

If the strike was settled or if the striking workers agreed to return on the employer's terms and conditions, the employer took them back. If the strike was not settled and the striking workers refused to return on the employer's terms and conditions, the replacement workers became permanent.

This is the system that my bill would return us to. The legislation simply provides that employers may not grant employment preference to replacement workers over striking workers. Claims made in some newspaper editorials that the bill prohibits the hiring of any replacement workers are inaccurate and dishonest.

The attraction of resorting to permanent replacements is that it allows the employer to effectively repeal the right of workers to engage in collective bargaining.

Our labor law gives workers the right to choose whether to be in a union; but, by permanently replacing workers, the employer permanently replaces the union.

Some argue that employers need to offer permanent status in order to attract replacement workers. Almost 60 years of industrial history in this country has shown this isn't the case.

What they are really arguing is that we must guarantee the ability of employers to always win strikes.

We are being asked to maintain an employer veto over the right of workers to choose to be represented by a union. Otherwise, they say, workers and their unions will drive us out of business.

Such an argument insults the intelligence of American workers who understand, perhaps better than their employers, that their companies must be competitive; that they only have a job so long as it is.

Many American companies operate very profitably in Canada. Nowhere in Canada may an employer permanently replace a striking worker. Japan, Germany, and France all categorically prohibit the permanent replacement of strikers.

A practice that encourages employers to bargain in bad faith, that prolongs labor disputes, that destroys workers' rights to a voice in their working conditions, that destroys individuals, families and communities should not and cannot be tolerated.

(Rep. Clay, D-Mo., is chairman of the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service and is a member of the Committee on Education & Labor.)