Unions seeking 'inflation' benefits while economy slips into recession

Contact negotiations beginning next month in two major industries will test labor's ability to press inflation-related demands during a recession. A powerful coalition of 26 unions bargaining in the nonferrous metals industry and by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) in negotiations with the nationwide Bell System will push for wage increases, pension gains, more job security, and other demands -- expected to exceed 10 percent a year over three years. The outlook is for difficult bargaining in each confrontation.

This is the situation:

* The coalition of 26 unions, spearheaded by the United Steelworkers, is presenting "comprehensive" demands to copper industry employers this month. This will be followed by bargaining in lead, zinc, titanium, gold, silver, nickels, and other metals industries. An estimated 180,000 workers in the Untied States and Canada will be involved.

* Bell System talks are set to begin June 4 and will be the largest labor bargaining of 1980, affecting 525,000 CWA employees. The union's national master agreement and 32 local Bell contracts expire Aug. 9. Glenn Watts, president of the CWA, predicts the Bell System "will fight hard . . . in the face of inflationary pressures."

Moreover, a new element will affect Bell System bargaining. The telephone companies are now facing competition. Mr. Watts looks for this to "cause the industry, the Bell System in particular, to take a bit tougher stand than in the past." On the other hand, according to the CWA, productivity gains in the industry are running four times the national average and Bell System earnings are good, up 21 percent since 1977, to about $5.7 billion a year.

The telephone union is prepared to strike, if necessary, "to win the kind of contract, the kind of compensation, the kind of benefits our members need and deserve," Mr. Watts says. However, he is optimistic that "outstanding productivity gains" in the industry will smooth the bargaining way to settlements.

The pattern set by the United Steelworkers in the basic steel contract settlement will influence wage bargaining in the nonferrous industry.

The package in steel was estimated at 34.5 percent, assuming a 10 percent annual inflation rate. While the Carter administration considered the pact "very costly," it accepted the terms without a strong protest.

In the nonferrous industry, conditions generally are improved from the last bargaining round, when the poor economic health of companies -- particularly in the copper industry -- was a major factor in negotiations. Steelworkers treasurer Frank S. McKee, who heads the multiunion bargaining coalition, sees no reason "proposals cannot be met within the companies' ability to pay [and] the presidential wage guidelines."

Nonferrous bargaining has a long record of difficult negotiations and frequent work stoppages.

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