Somehow the events being played out at Chrysler headquarters at Highland Park , Mich., and at Chrysler plants around the United States are hard to fathom. Many Chrysler workers are seriously considering rejecting a proposed new contract between the number three US automaker and the United Auto Workers that provides for new cost-of-living gains and wage increases as well as health benefits. Many rank-and-file workers grumble that the pact is a ''sellout'' to the company. Workers at several plants have already walked off the jobs.
This is hardly a model of the long-overdue cooperation among US autoworkers, union leaders, and corporate management that is so necessary to revive the American automobile industry.
Chrysler, one should recall, had just about collapsed back in 1979 and 1980 before the federal government stepped in with a $1.5 billion loan guarantee. That intervention, plus some internal belt-tightening at Chrysler as well as introduction of the popular new ''K'' car line, has so turned the firm around that it actually posted modest profits in the first and second quarters of this year.
But the Chrysler recovery remains tenuous. The firm owes $2 billion in long-term debt and has unfunded pension liabilities of $1.5 billion. Moreover, Chrysler must still compete against a vigorous General Motors and Ford, with their more extensive product lines, as well as against aggressive overseas companies.
The sticking point with many Chrysler workers is not the cost-of-living or health provisions, but the fact that the pact links future wage increases to future company profits. Is such a linkage unreasonable for a firm that only a year or so ago couldn't pay its bills? Granted, the new pact will still leave Chrysler workers some $2 an hour behind their counterparts at G.M. and Ford. But the Chrysler employees have their jobs. At a time when more than 200,000 autoworkers have been laid off indefinitely, this is no small thing.
If Chrysler were to collapse, where would those autoworkers go? Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca's television slogan takes on a new twist here: If disgruntled Chrysler workers can find a better-paying auto job, they should certainly take it. In the meantime, a proposed labor package that will total about $20.40 an hour by next September hardly seems a candidate for outright rejection.