Unions begin to balk at more 'give-backs' to employers

The much-heralded era of union contract concessions may be closing more quickly than expected.

The financially troubled aluminum industry apparently has lost its bid for wage-and-benefits concessions from the United Steelworkers.

The steelworkers earlier this year rejected contract aid that the steel industry said was ''essential'' if domestic steel is ever to get back on its feet.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) reported that its Chrysler Corporation members have voted overwhelmingly to strike if the firm does not agree on a new contract with wage increases and benefits guarantees before Sept. 14.

These developments underscore a stiffening resistance to ''give-backs'' - or contract concessions - in bargaining. Workers are balking at frozen wages, postponed or limited cost-of-living adjustments, or reduced benefits, as tools to cut labor costs.

There is now considerably less optimism - or hope - that the earlier and highly publicized ''concessionary'' settlements by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in the trucking industry, by the United Auto Workers in negotiations with General Motors and Ford and by a number of other unions, would carry over into other contract talks this year and in 1983.

A study made for the Brookings Institution and released in August predicted that union concessions in response to severely depressed conditions in the trucking and auto industries ''will have only a small effect on movements in aggregate wages in 1982.'' Permanent and basic changes in bargaining are unlikely, the study said.

The failure of the aluminum industry to reopen its contract to cut costs was the latest of a number of efforts by employers to negotiate new contracts that respond to worsening economic conditions.

The three largest aluminum producers - Aluminum Company of America, Reynolds Metal Company, and Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corporation - bargain jointly with the United Steelworkers, the small Aluminum, Brick, & Clay Workers, and several minor unions, which together represent some 65,000 workers.

The three firms currently are operating at less than 50 percent of capacity; many employees have been laid off. In mid-August managements formally asked the steelworkers and the Aluminum Workers to reopen contracts that run to May 31, 1983, and to consider modifications.

The producers were particularly interested in winning relief from cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) due Sept. 6, which will result in a substantial wage increase that will further inflate production labor costs.

After week-long talks, a steelworkers spokesman said ''the parties have been unable to come to an accommodation and we have concluded our discussion without a solution to our mutual problems.''

He said no changes will be made in the contract. The firms said they were ''extremely disappointed.''

In the talks involving the UAW and Chrysler, the union insisted on getting union members their first raise in two years (they gave up raises to help Chrysler when it was at the brink of bankruptcy). It also insisted on protection of workers' benefits that have been eroded by inflation. Chrysler replied that it ''simply cannot increase overall labor costs at this time.'' It called for cost-saving concessions largely in benefits areas in return for wage increases. Talks are continuing with the Sept. 14 strike deadline approaching.

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