The era of labor-management cooperation that began at Chrysler and helped the financially troubled automaker survive seems to be coming to an halt.
Members of the United Automobile Workers union have decisively rejected a new contract between the UAW and the company. Their vote brought Chrysler to the brink of a strike neither side can afford.
Stubborn worker resistance to contract ''givebacks'' or bargaining moderation at Chrysler and other companies could be a grim preview of major bargaining troubles ahead, concerned observers say.
The situation at Chrysler typifies a changing mood among workers. They seem restless and frustrated about job insecurity and economic uncertainties. Many see jobs in jeopardy that once were considered secure. Too often, rumors of plant cutbacks or closings have proved true, particularly in the hard-hit industrial Midwest.
Throughout US industry there is growing union resistance to management efforts to win wage and benefits concessions. Concerned observers on both sides see a shifting away from concessionary bargaining to confrontational bargaining.
In labor circles, Reagan economic policies are blamed for worker discontent. The UAW's president, Douglas A. Fraser, calls the policies ''ruinous.'' At the same time, there is strong and growing criticism of company policies toward workers and, among the members of the UAW and other unions, of the ''softness'' of union leaders who have worked with managements to hold down contract settlements.
The UAW and Chrysler worked closely together to reinforce the near-bankrupt firm's financial structure in 1979. Workers gave Chrysler $1.1 billion in wage and other concessions then, and the company elected UAW president Fraser to its board of directors. The collaborate new era in labor-management relatives.
The Chrysler contract dissatisfaction reflects discontent among General Motors and Ford workers who earlier this year approved agreements that included wage and other concessions. Many GM and Ford workers complain angrily that they were told that the new pact would preserve jobs, but layoffs have continued.
There is little room at Chrysler for compromise. Nothing short of a minimum 50 cents an hour to be put into effect immediately may mollify workers, whose wages have not risen in the last 21/2 years. Chrysler management, however, insists that it cannot afford raises now, even if a strike would result.
The unhappiness about concessions has weakened Fraser's popularity in the UAW and could result in the election of a more militant successor in 1983.
In the steel industry, where workers rejected United Steelworkers-industry efforts to trim labor costs in July, the union and major companies are now trying once more to find cost solutions that will be acceptable to steel union members. Lloyd McBride, the union's president, agrees that workers should forgo the large pay increases they have counted on in bargaining in the past.
As a realist, he says, ''We have to find a way so that we're alive at the end of this depression.'' He talks of ''reasonable trade-offs'' and the union's ''obligation to try to find them.'' However, as worried as steelworkers are, with nearly half on layoffs, there is still clear opposition to major concessions.