Labor disputes in key US industries drag on into 1980

The number of workers on strike in 1980 is running high as a result of continuing union disputes in oil refineries, coal fields, and farm equipment plants.

Strikes cost US businesses 3.1 million working days in January, the second-highest January total since 1970, according to a US Labor Department report. The total for January 1979, the beginning of a relatively peaceful bargaining year, was 1.9 million days lost. The decade's highest total, 5.1 million days lost, accumulated during the major nationwide coal strike in 1978.

The current major strikes show no signs of being resolved quickly. With 18 percent inflation creating new labor bargaining crises, the outlook is gloomy: Work stoppages could remain a problem for the economy and a political liability for President Carter throughout 1980.

The critical bargaining issue is not just money in paychecks, although union demands for substantially higher pay are building as prices rise. Inflation also is reflected in demands for increased benefits demands. Higher medical and hospital costs are making workers more adamant about increases in insurance coverage. Larger pensions, with increases for those already retired, are a "must" for many unions because of the squeeze of inflation on retirement benefits.

In strikes now under way:

* United Automobile Workers (UAW) members who struck International Harvester (IH) last November remain out, with no settlement in sight. Some 35,000 workers striking 17 plants cost IH a loss of 770,000 working days in January.

According to the UAW, the strike is over company demands for major concessions in voluntary overtime rules, seniority, holiday pay qualifications, piecework rules, and disability benefits for office workers. Many of the contract provisions that IH wants to change date back to the 1950s.

The company says it is trying to tighten operations and to trim "accumulated fat" out of labor costs. International Harvester, the country's top producer of heavy-duty trucks and second-largest farm equipment manufacturer, has become less profitable than its competitors largely as a result of labor costs, according to the company. Its bargaining stand is intended, it says, to improve the company's overall cost performance to bring it more into line with competitors in advance of a $2.5 billion capital spending program over the next five years.

* Some 60,000 workers are on strike in the oil industry in a dispute that began Jan. 8 and has escalated in recent weeks as other contracts ran out. The work stoppage cost more than a million working days in refineries in January, but because the operations are highly automated the strike has not seriously affected refinery production levels. Several small refineries have settled, but 110 production units are still being struck.

The Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers wants a "substantial" wage increase, a fully paid health-care program (workers now share the cost), and vacation improvements. Neither side shows any signs of budging.

* Peace in northern West Virginia coal fields broke down in late February when more than 5,000 miners quit jobs in unauthorized strikes, the first serious shutdown since the 111-day United Mine Workers (UMW) walkout in 1978. The strikes, over grievances not contract provisions, worried the UMW's new president, Sam Church Jr., and the industry.

Unauthorized strikes beset the industry for years prior to the 1978 settlement, but under the new contract 1979 was relatively peaceful, with disputes being resolved through contract procedures.

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