The past year looked like a milestone in collective bargaining. Unions moderated wage and benefit demands. Workers or their representatives joined hands with management to keep foundering businesses afloat. Observers hailed ''the new industrial relations.''
But will 1983 continue down this path of cooperation, or, as recent rumblings in the auto and steel industries could portend, will there be a return to the old industrial relations - the historically familiar road of union-management confrontation?
Most experts agree that labor negotiations in 1983 will not duplicate the stunning results seen in 1982 - wage and other concessions that led to the cheapest labor contracts in decades. But the cautious forecast is that next year's talks are likely to continue a trend toward relatively modest settlements.
And since '83 is another year of heavy bargaining, involving about 3.6 million workers in major industries, the trends begun this year in meatpacking, trucking, auto, farm equipment, rubber, and airline industries could continue unchecked to 1987.
This, say economists, would be a key to sustaining economic recovery without adding significantly to inflation.
Except in the steel and airline industries, where financial problems are the most serious, 1983 settlements are not expected to be as low as the average, first-year increase of 3.8 percent reported during the first nine months of 1982 . Averaged over the duration of the agreements, the rate was a little less, 3.5 percent a year.
However, of 2.7 million workers covered by major 1982 settlements, more than 1 million received no wage increase. Those who got at least one raise averaged 7 .1 percent more in the first year, or 5.9 percent annually over the contract term.
Settlements with wage increases in 1983 are expected to be at about those averages, 6.9 percent for the first year, as estimated by one labor outlook panel in New York. Construction increases are likely to be in a 7 to 8 percent range, a big drop from settlements that averaged more than 12 percent just a year ago.
Contracts to be negotiated in 1983 include those covering 349,000 steelworkers. In late 1982, these workers revolted against tentative union-management settlements that included concessions to hard-pressed basic steel companies. Contracts run out Aug. 1, but new efforts to settle early are expected.
There are growing worries in the industry and in the union that the rank and file's insistence on immediate pay increases from financially ailing companies could lead to a disastrous industrywide strike. Even the threat of a shutdown can be critical. To assure deliveries of adequate supplies of steel, if there is a strike, users must begin placing orders overseas four to six months in advance of a bargaining deadline - at a heavy cost in lost orders for domestic steelmakers and lost jobs for workers.
Other major bargaining ahead:
* AFL-CIO communications workers employed primarily by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and major telephone companies. First talks bewtween the Communications Workers of America and General Telephone of California, covering 20,500 workers and with a March 5 deadline, will indicate CWA's contract interests for 1983. But the AT&T and Bell negotiations covering 611,000 workers and with Aug. 7 deadlines will be the critical bargaining in the industry - in large part because of the problems that have resulted from the Justice Department order that the AT&T-Bell system must be split up by 1984.
* AFL-CIO glassworkers and glass container companies employing 52,000 workers have an April 1 deadline for new agreements; Western wood products employers and unions have a June 1 deadline for pacts covering 80,000 workers; Pacific coast shipbuilders and AFL-CIO unions face June 30 deadlines for new contracts covering 35,000 craftsmen; and Atlantic and Gulf coast shipping associations employing 50,000 have an Oct. 1 deadline with the International Longshoreman's Association.
* Aerospace companies with contracts with the United Auto Workers and International Association of Machinists, covering 215,000, have deadlines in October and November. The unions will be bargaining to preserve jobs, with about 50,000 workers laid off, and the companies are determined to hold down labor costs.
* Airlines contracts covering 68,000 AFL-CIO plane, crew, and ground employees expire at various time during the year, as do contracts covering 320, 000 grocery workers employed by major chains and store associations that deal with AFL-CIO's Food and Commercial Workers.
* And, a constant cause of localized problems, construction contracts covering more than 900,000 AFL-CIO building trades unionists in units of 1,000 or more run out during the year.