A Caterpillar Tractor strike that began Oct. 1 and the increasingly serious Chrysler labor situation are being watched closely, as unions and employers get set for major contract talks in 1983.
In both instances, as in the steel industry earlier, rank-and-file union members are showing more militancy - and less willingness to give concessions - than their leaders who, particularly at Chrysler and in the steel industry, fear the possible consequences of strikes.
The United Automobile Workers (UAW) and Chrysler are expected back at the bargaining table shortly because of the almost certain vote against a tentative settlement. The balloting, which continues to Oct. 14, has been running 2 to 1 against acceptance.
UAW president Douglas Fraser calls the adverse vote ''convincing and resounding.'' He says it is a result of terms that ''fall short of worker expectations,'' particularly because there is no immediate pay increase.
The UAW says bluntly that ''the propects are increasing'' for a Chrysler strike that the union had hoped to avoid. Its members had overwhelmingly approved a walkout before.
Meanwhile, strike at Caterpillar could become a long, hard confrontation. Strikers talk grimly of a hard winter but will be able to draw on the UAW's $456 million strike fund for help. Caterpillar itself has accumulated large inventories and its dealers are well stocked.
Plant communities will be hurt. Business is down sharply for merchants who already have reported 5 to 10 percent drops because of the recession and earlier layoffs.
A J.C. Penney official in Peoria, Ill., said that a Caterpillar strike ''very obviously will hurt business. You can't take that many out of the work force without it hurting.''
With no new talks scheduled soon, nobody is optimistic about an early settlement. Richard Olesen, president of a UAW local, talks of the strike as a ''confrontation'' forced by Caterpillar and says ''this could be a very long one.''
The Caterpillar strike at the expiration of a three-year contract on Sept. 30 followed a long bargaining deadlock. Relations between the union and the giant manufacturin firm have been bitter in recent years. The UAW struck for three months before the last contract settlement in 1979.
This time, Caterpillar insisted that it needed labor concessions to help it face growing competition from low-cost imports. It cited cost-cutting steps already taken and a planned reduction of capital expenditures by $175 million in 1983. It asked for a freeze of union wages, reduced cost-of-living adjustments, and less paid time off.
The UAW, which went along with International Harvester when it sought help in April, noted that Caterpillar ''had over $3 billion in profits after taxes during the past six years,'' and charged it with ''using an unfortunate economic condition in our country to deprive workers of their just due.''
When Caterpillar reported 1982 losses just before the strike deadline, the UAW offered to continue the present contract for three more years. Caterpillar said this would still mean a 28 percent rise in labor costs and rejected the proposal, leaving its own offer of 9 percent in increases over three years on the table.