Chrysler workers probably don't like the idea, but they might just be setting the tempo for collective bargaining in the 1980s. Their decision to scale down the economic demands of their United Automobile Workers (UAW) contract could mark the beginning of "realistic" labor negotiations that would result in a two-way movement of wages that, until now, have only moved upward.
That is a viewpoint being cautiosly expressed by employers and such labor- management relations experts as Melvin W. Reder of the University of Chicago graduate school of business, they do acknowledge that in situations such as Chrysler's, bargaining downward is "something we may have to do; it's better to give something than to get nothing at all."
Led by Douglas A. Fraser, president of the UAW, the union renegotiated Chrysler's contract terms to reduce wages about $46 a week and to freeze pay for 20 months.
Mr. Fraser has described the settlement as "the worst economic agreement" he has ever had to negotiate, and he is grimly aware that other "bad" agreements may be ahead.
Ford has indicated that it also may ask for substantial concessions from the UAW to bring down labor costs and maintain parity with Chrysler General Motors is considering doing the same.
The UAW is being flooded with appeals from Chrysler suppliers and other financially troubled companies. Fraser said recently that the UAW is "anticipating that everybody will be knocking at the door now," with employers "using the Chrysler settlement as a precedent, hoping to gain economic concessions."
A UAW regional director in Connecticut reports that at least six employers have "given all kinds of excuses to get us to lie down and play dead" in discussing wage and other contract rollbacks. In Detroit, UAW regional director Ken Morris says he has had numerous appeals for help from auto-industry suppliers. It would be easy, he says, to tell them that a contract is a contract and turn them down. Nonetheless, he is considering their pleas. "We have to do it to survive," he says.
Another regional director in Michigan, Bard Young, says a number of contracts have been reopened where it was clear that employers were in financial trouble."If it looks like the lights are going out in the plant, we go to our local union members and let them decide what to do," he says.
The UAW's policy is to require employers to demonstrate "with books wide open" that concessions are really needed. Where contracts are revised downward, the UAW wants to be involved in future company decision- making.
Moves for wage and other rollbacks are not limited to auto and related industries.* Companies in other industries negotiated cost-saving concessions from unions even before Chrysler's more publicized reductions from the UAW. Among them, Uniroyal won an estimated $9.9 million in concessions from the United Rubber Workers last summer.
Armour employees averted the closing of a slaughtering plant in Texas by agreeing to ease contract work rules. The United Transportation Union also has made concessions to help small, financially troubled railroads.
Smaller companies in electronics, electrical manufacturing, and the textile industry are watching developmen ts closely: They may be the next in line.