Chicago — A strike by more than 20,000 unionized truck drivers is starting to affect the auto industry. If it drags on, new car buyers could find dealer showrooms virtually empty. The strike began at midnight last Thursday, when car haulers around the Uinted States walked off the job as contract talks broke down. The drivers, organized by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, are a key link in the auto business. They are responsible for delivering new cars to dealers from auto plants and railroad delivery points.
``We don't have any cars here at all since it started,'' complains a Toyota dealer in Schaumburg, Ill., a Chicago suburb. ``The customers are getting crazy.''
At this point, the effects are limited and vary from dealer to dealer. Those selling imported cars are likely to feel the impact sooner than domestic-car dealers, which have more cars on hand. A Chevrolet dealership in Chicago reports no such effect so far. ``Nothing yet,'' says a closed-mouthed salesman.
The real impact on the nation's 19,500 dealers will come if the strike continues for another month or so, says Louis Priebe, public-relations director for the National Automobile Dealers Association.
Domestic auto manufacturers, meanwhile, say it is too early to tell how long they can continue production if the strike drags on. Railroad delivery points and loading lots are filling up fast, says Ford spokeswoman Linda Lee, but ``there's no way for us to gauge [it].''
``It's a gray area right now,'' says a Chrysler spokesman, because the company's production has slowed as its seven domestic factories change over to build the new 1986 models.
Talks between the Teamsters and the hauling companies broke off last week, when union negotiators rejected the latest offer from the two dozen car-hauling companies involved.
The two sides had reached a tentative agreement earlier, but the drivers overwhelmingly rejected it in a vote. The proposed contract would have raised hourly wage rates to the drivers, but it also would have cut pay to first- and second-year employees and mileage-based rates of pay for return trips.
A spokesman for the employers called the proposal ``a very fair offer.'' But an official at a dissident Teamster organization, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, disagreed. ``It really has them aggravated,'' he said of the drivers, who three years ago gave contract concessions to the employers. The companies had argued they were not competitive with railroads on some routes.