Labor contract negotations are undergoing a radical transformation.
Bargaining for more wages and benefits is giving way to cooperative efforts to reinforce faltering industries and preserve jobs.
Questions about how broadly the new attitude will be applied and how long it will last remain to be answered. Union leaders say the change is a limited reaction to poor business conditions and financial troubles in specific industries, not a trend for all negotiations.
But bargaining lies ahead for 3 million more unionized workers in major industries this year. It remains to be seen whether other unions will attempt to negotiate militantly for substantial gains after two important settlements, intended to cut labor costs, have been reached.
Employers, generally determined to hold down costs, can be expected to use as precedents:
* A new trucking industry contract, ratified and signed March 1, that freezes basic wages and gives significant concessions in work rules to cut employers' costs.
* An agreement one day earlier between the Ford Motor Company and United Automobile Workers that is expected to lop off $600 million to $1 billion in labor costs over the next 31 months in return for guarantees of job security or income.
* Earlier agreements, smaller but still significant, in airline, meat packing , food retailing, rubber, steel, and other industries -- for the most part involving individual companies with critical financial troubles.
Ray Marshall, secretary of labor in the Carter administration, said recently that many union officials acknowledge ''we no longer can afford the luxury of business as usual.'' Recognizing the heavy impact of the recession, growing foreign competition, and the deterioration of many US industries beset by high operating costs, unions are putting aside traditional belligerency. Instead, they are taking a more cooperative attitude -- showing more willingness to work with employers toward contract accommodations involving cost reductions and strengthened job security.
The new attitude resulted last year in the lowest number of strikes since 1942, only 2,577 involving six or more workers and lasting at least one day. The total number of workers involved, 1.1 million, and the number of days lost to work strikes, 24.7 million, were the lowest figures in two decades.
The UAW agreement with Ford, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) contract with Trucking Management Inc. (bargaining for 284 major trucking companies) underscored the unions' more conciliatory attitude. In both instances , the union opened bargaining well in advance of the usual schedule, settlements were reached without militant posturing and strike threats, and contracts have gone into effect early.