Organized labor has recently given more ground on wage gains and restrictive work practices that at any time in the past 35 years.
But even as bargaining in the steel and other industries begins this summer, the concessionary drive is meeting resistance, and there are lingering doubts about whether it will last beyond the current economic slump.
The result of the most publicized bargaining in auto, trucking, airline, rubber, meat-processing, construction, and other industries has been a deceleration of labor costs that had been rising steadily since the 1930s. Economists talk of a dramatic change from an adversary relationship between employers and unions, with cooperation producing results that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago.
A survey last month by Louis Harris & Associates disclosed that 107 of 419 large, unionized corporations had obtained wage and benefits concessions in bargaining with unions. Hundreds of smaller companies also have negotiated such cutbacks to keep plants open or stave off bankruptcy.
Even so, many in industry and labor are pessimistic about the trend continuing beyond the present economic slump. Although unions are giving ground after years of militant bargaining over hefty demands, they have not backed away from what they consider to be a commitment to members to negotiate for substantial annual gains.
This spring auto and trucking unionists reluctantly approved settlements with employers that included concessions in wages and benefits. However, they made clear through their unions that they expect that what they are giving up now will be restored to them later, when times are better.
In the United Auto Workers, for instance, unionists say flatly that the 3 percent annual wage increase they are giving up will have to be returned when the industry's fortunes improve.
This will also be true in bargaining this summer:
* United Steelworkers members, asked by major companies to ease a labor-cost burden that employers say makes them uncompetitive in world steel markets, are reluctant to give concessions. They note that the industry reported profits as late as last year. US Steel unionists also are angry because the corporation asked them for concessions just after its $6 billion merger with the Marathon Oil Company.
Major steel companies are expected to ask for a wage freeze. They want a quick settlement because a 23-cent-an-hour increase will be due Aug. 1. Cost-of-living adjustments also are coming due. The union has not agreed to any concessions, only agreeing to engage in ''discussions for the purpose of exploring possible solutions.'' If it agrees to concessions within the next few weeks, the union is expected to insist that employers divert some of their savings into increased aid for 100,000 unemployed steelworkers.
* Electrical workers' unions now negotiating with General Electric (GE) are resisting concessions, arguing that the firm does not share the critical problems of auto and steel companies. However, the recession and housing slump have hit some GE operations hard, particularly in Louisville, Ky., where more than 3,000 workers manufacturing home appliances have been laid off. Hard bargaining in the next few weeks is expected to result in some moderation, particularly involving work practices and benefits.
* In the railroad industry, despite unemployment and heavy financial pressures on railroad companies, six unions representing 11,000 nonoperating employees, resisted the trend to concessionary bargaining and won new contracts with up to 18.7 percent wage increases.
Operating unions representing 7,000 unionists in train crews are still negotiating, with a deadline coming soon. They want an even larger settlement.
* Among others in bargaining this summer, the International Association of Machinists and the Transport Workers Union say they will resist employer demands for concessions. Even if it means strikes, they say, each employer involved will have to prove that he cannot remain in business without wage and benefits relief.
In construction, now entering its busiest bargaining period of the year, local conditions are likely to determine union bargaining policies.