The largest group of organized workers who will negotiate new contracts this year, the steelworkers, draft their bargaining demands next week in Pittsburgh. There is no doubt that the demands will be set high, despite growing problems in the industry and spreading criticism of the steelworkers' average $20,000 -a-year pay as excessive. An announcement that United States Steel Corporation planned to close 16 plants and lay off 13,000 workers set off the criticism by conservative business groups and in editorial columns of newspapers in steel centers.
Lloyd McBride, president of the nearly 500,000-member United Steelworkers, concedes that pay in the mills has "gone up substantially in the past decade." However, he says that 57.3 percent of the wage increases in the past 10 years resulted from cost-of-living increases generated by steadily rising costs of food, fuel, medical care, and housing.
According to Mr. McBride, today's average steel wage of $10.96 an hour is no longer enough to provide for what the US Department of Labor considers "a modest standard of living" for a family of four.
For that reason, Mr. McBride says his union must seek "a substantial wage increase" in 1980 bargaining.
The eventual settlement could test the firmness of the Carter administration's proposed new wage guideline of 7.5 to 9.5 percent increases a year.
Recommended by the Council on Wage and Price Stability Jan. 22, the revised guideline recognizes that trying to hold increases to 7 or 8 percent, as now, could lead to labor turmoil in a year when millions of workers will be bargaining on new contracts. The council hopes that settlements will cluster about 8.5 percent, considered an ample restraint.
A settlement at about that figure is possible in steel, but it would result from a greater stress on gains in job security, pension improvements, more paid time off, and similar benefits -- all factors leading to higher labor costs. However, with inflation at 13 percent in the past year, those attending the Feb. 5-6 United Steelworkers prebargaining conference are expected to insist that their negotiators set 9.5 percent as their goal for 1980.
Whatever settlement comes out of bargaining for 357,400 unionists employed by nine basic steel companies that negotiate jointly will set a pattern for 100,000 workers in mills of smaller companies as well as for 120,000 in the aluminum and nonferrous metals industries.
It also will affect negotiations in other major industries. Altogether wage bargaining this year will cover at least 3.8 million of the 9.6 million workers in major collective bargaining units, about the same number as in 1979.
Major contract deadlines to be met include those for 500,000 Bell Telephone workers represented by the Communications Workers of America and 50,000 telephone workers represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, in August; 41,000 dockworkers under International Longshoremen's Association contracts in the North Atlantic, New York area, and western Gulf of Mexico ports, in September; 65,000 aerospace workers with International Association of Machinist and United Automobile Workers contracts in October; and hundreds of thousands of construction workers with negotiations mostly in the spring, summer, and fall.
At least 4.9 million workers will receive deferred wage increases in 1980, most negotiated in 1978 and 1979 and averaging 5.1 percent (or 45 cents an hour). In addition to these deferred increases, automatic cost-of- living adjustments (COLA) to higher prices are specified in contracts covering 3.6 million workers. With double-digit inflation continuing, the COLA raises could add 8 to 10 percent increases in pay.