Union contract settlements in 1982 are expected to be the most moderate since the 1940s.
Major unions representing more than 1 million workers have either accepted earlier agreements with smaller increases in wages or benefits - or none at all - or they are reopening contracts to negotiate job-saving concessions.
A glum economic picture, whose details include rising unemployment rates, damaging foreign competition, and company closures, has jolted labor into making concessions.
The United Automobile Workers (UAW) agreed over the past weekend to open talks on Jan. 11 with General Motors, with 318,000 unionized employees, and Ford , with 113,000. The negotiations, eight months before present contracts run out, are intended to help pull the industry out of its worst slump since World War II.
The UAW and the companies expect to move quickly toward a new contract. Union negotiators hope to be able to report a tentative agreement to GM and Ford bargaining councils on Jan. 23. Current contracts run to Sept. 14.
In a statement issued in Chicago, the union said that it ''cannot stand idly by . . . while our members' jobs disappear.'' The UAW would prefer government support of the auto industry through import restrictions and legislation that would require that a large percentage of the components in the finished car be manufactured in the US. However, it says, ''we know that is unlikely to happen.''
Today's protectionist attitude is a marked reversal of the UAW's traditional free-trade policies, a change that reflects the union's growing worries as auto unemployment has soared to 20.7 percent.
Douglas A. Fraser, president of the UAW, recommended early negotiations and possible concessions to GM and Ford, describing the outlook in the industry as ''bleak'' and warning, ''Things are not going to get better soon. They are likely to get worse.''
The GM and Ford bargaining councils met with doors closed to the press, but it was no secret afterward that some strong opposition developed when concessions were debated. This was particulary evident, one New Jersey union official said afterward, when there were suggestions of a possible wage freeze or the deferral of cost-of-living adjustments.
Neither council would outline concessions that might be acceptable, but there was talk of fewer paid holidays and possibly larger contributions by workers to health and retire-ment programs in return for stronger job guarantees.
With talks starting, Mr. Fraser told reporters, ''I'm not willing to concede any concessions, at least not yet. We want to see what trade-offs the companies will put on the bargaining table - what they'll give us for concessions.''
The UAW decision to discuss more moderate contract terms with GM and Ford is expected to give further impetus to early and cost-saving bargaining in other industries.
John T. Dunlop, a professor at the Harvard Business School and a former secretary of labor, said recently that there have been more early contract negotiations, leading to modest settlements, over the past several months than in the last three or four decades. Unions, he said, are recognizing the ''hard times'' employers are experiencing and are responding positively.
Unions in steel, meatpacking, and several other industries have recently settled early and for less.