A new era in labor relations? Look again, say experts

Don't expect recent bargaining concessions by the auto workers and other unions to signal a new era in labor relations.

That's the cautionary note from a survey of labor economists and industrial relations experts. They stress that it's not so much the length of the general recession that's pushing some unions toward concessions as the circumstances in individual industries.

For example, sharp overseas competition and the wage levels of workers in comparable jobs elsewhere can nudge negotiators toward concessions, as they did in the reopened auto talks.

''It's not necessarily a general pattern that's going to sweep collective bargaining,'' concludes Charles Rehmus, dean of the New York School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University.

Still, 1982 promises to be an exceptionally big year for labor negotiations. Contracts covering some 3.6 million workers are due to expire.

Some contracts slated to run out in the fall, such as those covering Ford and General Motors workers, have already been renegotiated. In both new contracts, the United Automobile Workers (UAW) gave up two annual 3 percent raises, some paid vacation time, and agreed to temporarily defer cost of living increases. In exchange, they received stepped up job security and profit sharing.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters similarly agreed earlier this year to a more modest-than-usual new contract covering some 300,000 truck drivers and warehouse workers.

And just this week US Steel chairman -David Roderick insisted that labor concessions in the steel industry are vital to its survival. The remark fueled speculation that the eight major US steel companies may soon ask to reopen the basic steel contract not scheduled to expire until August 1983.

But the contracts remaining to be renegotiated this year are in some respects a different breed from those which have brought, or are likely to bring, concessions.

The rubber industry, for instance, has been faring somewhat better than the auto industry, although its stake in car sales is obvious. Three of the four major domestic tire producers turned a profit last year. Union workers at Uniroyal Inc. have agreed to defer cost of living hikes for another three years. But experts say that there is no sign of similar concessions from the United Rubber Workers with the other three tire producers. One factor adding to the pressure to stand firm: The union has a new president who will presumably be trying to solidify his position with the rank and file. The union is currently talking tough, and a strike is considered a possibility.

''The (rubber workers) union doesn't seem to be in a mood to give up anything ,'' observes Richard L. Rowan, professor of industry at Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Similarly, there is little if any talk of ''give-backs'' by electrical workers, who are expected begin talks on their new contracts within the next few months. Professor Rehmus notes that the beginning of a slump in office construction in large cities could add to management pressure for offering lower-than-usual wage increases -- ''but not what we'd call give-back or buy-back negotiations.''

For many in the labor community, the prime concern in these troubled economic times is job security. In many instances, bargaining concessions have come only as workers faced the sobering thought of having no job at all.

The ''give-back'' phenomenon is by no means new. Traditionally hard economic times force wages down, explains James L. Stern, director of the Industrial Relations Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin. Strikes are less frequent, he says, and management, with an eye to greater productivity, turns to stricter discipline for absenteeism. ''Unions are on the defensive,'' he says.

But in a departure from the past, unions are now insisting that management make a solid case for the economic hardship it pleads.

''The unions' whole posture these days is that concessions will not be considered until there is an examination of the company's overall economic condition,'' notes Ronald J. Peters, professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois.

Many workers want firm assurance that management will share in the sacrifices. Labor experts stress that appearance and timing are particularly crucial to contract negotiations. A ''worst case'' scenario singled out by many experts, for instance, was International Harvester's well-publicized plea to its workers to help out in dire economic times -- even as the company was offering bonuses to management. In a move to make amends, Harvester later announced a 5 percent pay cut for management and salaried.

''In a way International Harvester kind of set up everybody else,'' observes Audrey Freedman, labor economist for the Conference Board, a business research group. ''This business of making signs is terribly important in bargaining -- it's not an empty gesture at all. . . . It's really a matter of making moves in the right sequence . . . and of convincing not only union officers but the general public that you really mean business and are changing your ways.''

''I think we'll be seeing more (management sacrifices) where employers are really serious about 'give-back' bargaining,'' says Dean Rehmus. ''I wouldn't say it was essential but it's certainly one of the quickest ways to convey the impression that times are tough and that you're serious about what you're saying.''

Such management ''give'' may take not only the form of salary cuts but of offers to share profits, give unions a larger voice in corporate decisionmaking, and open up company financial records and other corporate information.

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