With an eye toward contract negotiations covering millions of workers in 1984 , unions are looking on warily as employers such as Greyhound Lines Inc., Continental Airlines, and the Phelps Dodge Corporation show a willingness to collide head-on with militant workers in battles for lower labor costs.
Although contract settlements continue to be moderate by past standards and bargaining has been relatively peaceful through most of 1983, Greyhound, Continental, Phelps Dodge, and a number of other major companies are now electing to defy strikes and maintain operations.
Arnold W. Weber, a labor economist with a long record as a mediator and arbitrator of union-management disputes and now president of the University of Colorado, commented recently that there is now ''a changed perspective of what is acceptable and peaceable behavior.''
He said employers who have accepted unions reluctantly in the past are ''coming out of the closet, willing to fight.''
Concerned about plant closings and jobs, many unions avoided strikes in the past two years.
But now the economy is recovering from recession at a rapid clip, with unemployment dropping to 8.7 percent in October. Unions are showing more militancy: Confrontations are more frequent. Workers are more willing to balk at proposals for more concessions, and they are more determined to make up for concessions made earlier.
The Greyhound strike is the most recent example. Employees of the country's largest bus line, represented by the Almagated Transit Union, struck Nov. 3 after rejecting contract changes sought by the carrier. According to the union, Greyhound was seeking a 28 percent slash in wages, benefits, and expected cost-of-living adjustments, along with wage-rule revisions that the union said would cost jobs and workers' earnings.
Greyhound said the estimate is ''much exaggerated'' but admitted that it would like to achieve parity with competitive passenger carriers through cost reductions of about 30 percent over three years. Greyhound has lost business, particularly to lower-fare regional airlines.
The strike by 12,700 Greyhound workers became angrier when the company advertised for workers (it reported 53,000 applications in one week) and then began hiring permanent replacements for strikers as it got set for a Nov. 17 resumption of limited service.
Pickets demonstrated angrily, however, when buses began rolling again. There was scattered violence around the country, for the most part vandalism of buses. No serious injuries were reported, but more than 150 were arrested.
Meanwhile, some progress is reported in resumed bargaining. The union will submit Greyhound's revised contract proposals, which include a smaller wage cut, to a rank-and-file vote by Nov. 29.
Continental Airlines is operating on a curtailed schedule despite a strike in a contract dispute complicated by controversial bankruptcy proceedings. Continental used the federal law to fire more than half its unionized employees, cut wages and benefits by up to 50 percent, and terminate pension plans, seniority rules, and work rules, according to its unions.
Phelps Dodge is operating at nearly normal levels despite a strike by 2,600 copper mine and smelter workers that began July 1.
The walkout started, as the Greyhound strike has, with angry picket line demonstrations and threats of violence; the Arizona National Guard and police forces were called out. Since then, 2,400 production workers, half of them reportedly strikers, have returned to work at five Phelps Dodge facilities, with wage and benefit reductions of about 10 percent.