American union and business leaders, often adversaries over the contract-bargaining table, are joining in a search for solutions to major economic problems facing the nation.
After a year of quiet negotiations, a secret blue-chip group of leaders has announced that the Labor-Management Group, an advisory panel established in 1973 but dormant since 1978, will be revived. The panel, which will operate outside the government, is led jointly by AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland and Clifton C. Garvin Jr., chairman of the Exxon Corporation.
Former US Secretary of Labor John T. Dunlop will serve as coordinator of the group, which will tackle such critical problems as reindustrialization, competition from import goods such as a autos, unemployment, and inflation.
In the group's statement of purpose, which amounts to a formal charter, the two sides said:
"The United States faces a period in its history when noninflationary growth and full employment are essential to the maintenance of a free and healthy society. american labor and business see these as a necessary mutual goals to provide our society with new and expanded job opportunities, increased living standards, international competitiveness . . . , and the capacity to meet social commitments."
The group, which will meet on a voluntary basis from time to time, will seek a consensus on national economic policies. It will "explore a wide range of issues, with particular emphasis on revitalizing the nation's economic base, rebuilding the private and public infra- structure on which our productive capacity as a nation depends, and stimulating safe and efficient means for meeting the nation's energy needs."
Realistically, the group does not expect full agreement on everything. Labor and business have basic differences on many issues, and a consensus will be difficult to achieve.
The AFL-CIO's Mr. Kirkland says a joint exploration of issues, with or without a final consensus, will "sharpen our thinking and increase our understanding of the problems." Mr. Garvin, who talks of broad backing for the joint panel in the business world, agrees with Kirkland and adds, "the idea of a constant dialogue makes sense. The fact that this group worked so well in the past is a sign that we ought to continue it."
But not everybody agrees that labor-management panels have worked so well in the past. They have been criticized for seldom meeting and existing more as paper organizations than as active forums.
However, there is a general acceptance of a need for the kind of cooperation and dialogue that the revitalized group envisions. National interest requires a new spirit of mutual trust and cooperation, both sides agree.
Many of the labor representatives in the group where involved in earlier panels, but most business members are new and many are also participants in the Business Roundtable -- an organization of top corporate executives and one that is frequently a target of labor criticism.
how well the group will work -- or whether it will work at all -- is likely to depend on Mr. Dunlop's often-demonstrated ability to steer adversary groups around strongly controversial issues. One labor member of the panel says that the two sides have enough topics of mutual interest and importance to talk about without bringing up matters that could lead to "an eruption of fiery debate."