Unions say 'No more Mr. Nice Guy' -- concessions may be on the wane

Recent wage and benefit concessions by labor unions are starting to add up - or add down.

In settlements during the first six months of 1982, unions nationwide won increases of only 3 percent, less than half the figure in 1981.

But the collapse last week of early steel negotiations may signal the end of the willingness of unionized workers to give contract ground on wages.

The rejection of an early, cost-cutting contract by steel workers last week generally is blamed on deep-lying rank-and-file suspicions that wage and benefits concessions that would save $2 billion or more would not be used to revive the steel industy or to save jobs.

Lloyd McBride, president of the United Steelworkers, said after meeting with 400 local union leaders that the group had decided unanimously that ''the sacrifice our membership was asked to make was unacceptable.''

Conferees voted June 30 to reject a three-year freeze of wages and benefits that averaged $22.69 an hour before Aug. 1 raises took effect (the average for all industries is $13.68 an hour) and against eliminating or limiting cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for the next three years.

In doing so, they scuttled industry pledges of $100 to $220 a week in benefits for many of the 100,000 steelworkers who have been laid off. The conferees also acknowledged that their rejection of concessions probably would lead to more layoffs and plant closings.

In voting down the offer, the local leaders made clear that they felt that wages and labor costs are being greatly exaggerated as a cause of the industry's troubles and that they doubt that savings from wage and benefits concessions would actually be used to modernize the US steel industry to make it competitive in world markets.

Although many plants are old and inefficient (United States Steel Corporation alone has shut down 16 plants as unprofitable, idling 13,000 workers), many steelmakers have been using available funds to diversify into nonsteel operations rather than to modernize steel facilities. Steel unionists are particularly angry over US Steel's recent expensive acquisition of Marathon Oil.

Many workers in other industries have similar doubts about the effectiveness of wage and benefits concessions as a way to save plants and jobs. Signs of disillusionment are already showing up in the auto industry, where General Motors and Ford have found it hard to win concessions sought to improve production under local contracts.

Worker resistance to concessions led General Electric and, most recently, Westinghouse to settle for slight contract increases from 1979. The Communications Workers of America turned its back on the trend to concessionary bargaining by winning from Western Union a wage and benefits settlement for more than 30 percent over three years.

Other recent settlements raise doubts that the results of the first half of 1982 will continue to be the pattern through the rest of the year.

The Labor Department reported July 30 that about 1.9 million workers under major collective bargaining agreements settled for first-year wage increases, which averaged only 3 percent through June. The wage gains were the lowest in years and substantially under the 7.7 percent average for comparable months in 1981.

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