''There hasn't been anything like this since World War II.''
That's how one analyst sums up 1982 labor bargaining in the United States.
At the start of a new and heavy bargaining year, some of the country's most militant unions, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) and United Automobile Workers (UAW), have set aside traditional demands for large wage increases to talk of moderation to preserve jobs - something unheard of in recent decades.
In Detroit Jan. 12, at the start of formal UAW negotiations with General Motors, the two sides announced an unprecedented agreement to pass down GM cost savings from union concessions to consumers in the form of lower prices on cars.
In trucking industry talks covering over-the-road operations, the goal of employers and the IBT is to lower hauling costs and help the unionized part of the industry regain business through reduced trucking rates.
In the oil industry where Gulf Oil and the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers have just negotiated a contract for 16 percent wage gains over two years, industry sources say that gasoline prices will not be affected; the labor cost in a gallon of gas, according to the union, is only a fraction of a cent.
Although a trend is apparent, it will not be firmly set until the UAW and major auto companies reach a settlement. The auto union and, to a lesser extent, the Teamsters set bargaining patterns. For decades, industrial wages and benefits for millions of workers have been tied loosely to those negotiated by the UAW. Those in industry and government who have wanted to apply a brake to high-rising pay have not been able to while auto pay kept going higher in successive bargaining years.
In the past, the UAW has strongly resisted industry and government urgings to give ground at bargaining tables. However, says Douglas A. Fraser, president of the auto union, these are ''the most dismal of times'' for the industry. Under the circumstances, the UAW agreed to bargain early and to work with GM and Ford for a settlement, expected within 10 days, that will reduce labor costs and bring ''significant'' reductions in auto prices.
The basic wage of auto workers is not expected to be cut back but the rate of increases over the next three years may be slowed and sizable savings may be made in work rules and benefits schedules. The result, says GM, could be ''quite a historic agreement.'' Some within labor, including William W. Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists, say the auto talks now under way and the trend toward more moderate settlements could change the nature of bargaining as it has existed for several decades.
Meanwhile, economists are already saying that the increases in wages and benefits in 1982 could be the smallest in years. A Morgan Guaranty Bank economic report recently said, ''There hasn't been anything like this since before World War II.'' More than at any time in years, contract bargaining - not only on wages and benefits but also on costly work rules - is recognizing employer problems and economic realities.
Contracts covering 4.5 million workers will be negotiated this year and in almost all industries employers are calling for substantial union concessions to help through deteriorated economic times.
One of the first responses came in early December when Roy Lee Williams, president of the Teamsters, told the employers' Trucking Management Inc. that the IBT will work with employers on a contract that will help them ''survive in the marketplace.'' Negotiations since then have indicated that when a settlement is reached, sometime this month, the terms will include the smallest gains for union members in many years.
Airlines have been able to negotiate ''wage pauses'' in wage and salary increases or, in some instances, pay reductions. Most recently, Eastern Airlines employees accepted a one-year wage freeze after the company reported record losses in 1981, and Western Airlines reached a tentative agreement with its pilots and flight attendants calling for a 10 percent wage reduction.
McLouth Steel Corporation blue-collar workers in Detroit have given their employer wage and benefits concessions that will cost workers about $1.14 an hour. The United Steel Workers, representing them, said that without the concessions, McLouth probably would be forced to shut down, putting 3,000 out of work.
While the oil workers want a 9 percent wage increase this year and 7 percent more in 1983, their union has backed away from heavier demands in an industry less affected than most by poor economic conditions. Elsewhere, the United Rubber Workers accepted a cost-cutting 40-month contract with Uniroyal Inc.; a union dealing with Armour, Wilson, and Hormel in the meat-packing industry made an ''agonizing'' decision to allow wages to be frozen until September 1984 and to limit cost-of-living adjustments; and unions in a number of other industries have agreed to negotiate early and settle for less.