The previous Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter had enacted or proposed regulations strengthening a number of employment standards, including those on occupational safety and health. Mr. Donovan withdrew or suspended them.
At the same time, he sought to reverse decades-old laws prohibiting workers in several industries, like the knitted outerwear business, from working at home, and to expand the types of jobs and hours that 14- and 15-year-olds could legally work.
Labor leaders said such steps would foster violations of minimum wage, child labor and other laws. Mr. Donovan countered, “We are not cutting out any health and safety requirements meaningful to the protections of workers.” Rather, he said, the Labor Department was “changing the approach” to labor practice, scrapping what he called a regulatory “police state mentality” that had prevented some American industries from being competitive with their foreign counterparts.
Mr. Donovan, however, did not play a central decision-making role in the Reagan administration’s biggest labor confrontation — over an illegal strike in 1981 by most of the nation’s air traffic controllers, for which the president fired them. The Transportation Department, not the Labor Department, took the lead on the government side because the controllers worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, part of the transportation agency.
Mr. Donovan, who had grown wealthy in the construction industry before joining the administration, held that his early life struggles and his working career had given him insight, he said, into “what workers’ needs are and what motivates them.”
Raymond James Donovan was born on Aug. 31, 1930, in the St. Andrew’s section of Bayonne, N.J., the seventh of 12 children of David and Eleanor Donovan. Both parents died by the time he was 18, leaving the older children to raise the younger ones.
Ray attended St. Andrew’s School and St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, then went on to study at Holy Trinity Seminary in Alabama and the Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, graduating in 1952. But instead of going into the Roman Catholic priesthood, as he had considered, he returned to Bayonne. “It was my turn to take care of the younger ones,” he said in a 1980 interview with The New York Times.