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A penny saved is a penny earned. Ben Franklin's adage will get a test in the auto industry. Because of inflation's plunge, GM, Ford, and Chrysler are saving a penny an hour on labor costs - the result of the first drop in the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) since 1956. UAW president Douglas A. Fraser said the drop ''will not affect the living standards of our members . . . but will actually mean a little more buying power due to lower prices.'' GM and Ford workers have received $6.60 an hour in COLA increases since 1948. Chrysler workers picked up less - $4.89 an hour - because they gave up adjustments for some time as part of concessions to help the corporation stave off bankruptcy. Currently, COLA clauses are under strong attack by employers, who complain of their high and unpredictable cost.

Major steel firms have just won contract concessions from the United Steelworkers to suspend COLAs for a year and then modify them.m

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