Labor contract talks under way in the rubber industry will be watched closely this month for clues to whether union concessions to employers will spread more widely in 1982.
The United Rubber Workers (URW) took a tough bargaining stance with major employers at the start of contract talks in Akron, Ohio, March 8. This stance seemed to be more typical of what employers can expect than the cooperative attitudes shown recently by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Milan Stone, the new president of the URW, is conducting his first major negotiations. He told bargaining representatives of Uniroyal, Firestone, and General Tire, meeting separately, that the rubber union's members will insist on ''substantial'' gains.
''We are not going to follow the United Auto Workers' lead this year,'' Mr. Stone said. ''Our members gave us a mandate to negotiate for more, not less.''
Union demands include a moderate raise in wages (now averaging $11 to $12 an hour), continued cost-of-living adjustments (one of the costliest elements), larger pensions, more money for benefits that now cost employers about $6 an hour, and added protection for workers who lose jobs in plant closings.
The tire companies are seeking cost-cutting concessions. Unlike auto companies, they are likely to find them harder to justify except, possibly, on a plant-by-plant basis: the URW already has given some concessions to save plants and jobs.
Tire companies say that sales are falling and profits are inadequate. They have closed 13 marginal plants in the past three years and 28 since 1973 in efforts to strengthen their financial positions. When they negotiated with URW in 1979, the companies employed 55,000 workers; now they employ only 39,500. URW officials concede that job worries will be an important bargaining factor.
Tire company contract negotiations have not been settled without a strike since 1965.