No-strike vote at Chrysler could strengthen union's bargaining position

The holiday season, concern over jobs, and hopes of improved earnings for Chrysler in the last quarter of this year were important factors as United Automobile Workers members voted against a Nov. 1 strike.

Reversing an earlier strike authorization, Chrysler workers voted 25,056 to 11,589 - or about 68 percent - against a walkout now. The vote was called because of the deadlocked contract negotiations with the company.

The vote does not indicate a softening of the workers' attitude. It accepts a strategic alternative, urged by UAW leaders, to a potentially costly - and hazardous - walkout. To most Chrysler workers, the vote was not against a strike; it was for a postponement that could give the UAW a stronger bargaining position. When talks resume in January, they say, a walkout will be inevitable unless Chrysler drops its hard-line position against immediate wage increases.

While the vote left long-term labor peace for Chrysler up in the air, the delay of action against the company was reassuring to hundreds of employers around the country.

Worker resistance to concessions or moderated contract demands has stiffened in recent months, largely as a result of continuing layoffs where wage and other economic gains have been traded off for more security.

Many small and vulnerable employers had hoped for an outright Chrysler victory in bargaining with the powerful UAW. Such a victory could have been precedent-setting. Chrysler's success in limiting the labor cost of a new contract and in linking wage increases to company profits is far from assured. But the UAW's decision not to strike is expected to stiffen resistance to larger union demands on other employers.

Chrysler unionists overwhelmingly rejected a tentative settlement reached Sept. 16, which brought the UAW to the brink of a strike. The agreement was described by UAW president Douglas A. Fraser as a ''modest'' one but ''the best that could possibly have been done without a prolonged strike.''

The rank and file objected to the tentative agreement because it failed to provide immediate wage increases. Workers had not had a raise in two years and had given up $1.2 billion in concessions to help Chrysler through a period when it was threatened with insolvency. Instead of immediate raises that it said it could not afford, Chrysler offered to resume cost-of-living adjustments on a limited basis and to give raises in 1983 based on company profits. Mr. Fraser and other top UAW leaders urged approval of the settlement. The 16,189-to-8,004 drubbing was the first rejection of a major settlement in the auto industry and a serious repudiation of the union leadership.

When Chrysler refused to change its position, Fraser said there would be no point in continuing talks. Voting on the alternatives of a Nov. 1 strike and strike-free holidays, Chrysler unionists chose the latter course.

A strike almost certainly would have continued into 1983. Neither side was willing to give ground. Chrysler was reported unwilling to resume bargaining before January whether or not the UAW struck.

For most workers, Christmas or Hanukah (Dec. 11) are times when family budgets are strained. Moreover, a strike during the holidays would cost most unionists their week off with pay between Christmas and New Year's Day. Unhappy as they were about working under expired contracts, relatively few indicated a willingness to give up the advantages of staying on jobs into 1983.

Chrysler continues to warn that ''there is simply no more money for wage increases.'' But a compromise might be possible early next year if the company's profit position improves.

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