For the second time in the new year, labor contract bargaining power has shifted significantly to employers, a move that worries unions at the start of a major year for wage negotiations.
Ten days after the federal bankruptcy court in Houston ruled that Continental Airlines could file for bankruptcy during labor bargaining, hire nonunion workers, and put aside contractual wage rates and benefits, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Tuesday reversed past policies to allow employers to transfer operations from union to nonunion plants.
Unions, already concerned about growing problems with ''runaway'' plants, blamed the ''Reagan NLRB'' for a decision they said could accelerate the trend of companies to move into nonunion areas to escape union bargaining.
A 1982 NLRB decision in the same case, involving the Milwaukee Spring Division of the Illinois Coil Spring Company and the United Automobile Workers, barred a shift of the Milwaukee Spring operations to a nonunion plant in McHenry , Ill., without a prior agreement with the UAW.
That decision held that such a plant shift would violate the National Labor Relations Act, which requires that employers and unions honor the provisions of negotiated contracts.
Since the 1982 decision, members appointed to the board by President Reagan have changed NLRB thinking - and decisions - in a number of areas. The AFL-CIO, UAW, and many other unions have sharply criticized the board's present orientation as pro-management.
In the Milwaukee Spring case, the company challenged the NLRB ruling favoring UAW in the United States Court of Appeals in Chicago. Before the case was decided there, the NLRB took an unusual step by requesting the court to return the case to the board for reconsideration.
In the decision just handed down in Washington, the new NLRB majority agreed that since there is nothing in the Milwaukee Spring-UAW contract that specifically bars a plant transfer, the company is free to shift its operations. The contract, without such a prohibition, does not give ''a union veto power regarding relocation,'' the board majority said.
The decision, signed by Donald L. Dotson, chairman; Robert P. Hunter; and Patricia Diaz Dennis, also said that a clarification of contract policy should ''encourage realistic and meaningful collective bargaining.''
Don Zimmerman, a holdover member who cast a dissenting vote, noted that Milwaukee Spring's decision was ''admittedly solely to avoid contractual wage rates.''
The UAW is expected to go into federal court to challenge the NLRB decision. David Mitchell, a union spokesman, called the reversed decision a ''blatant'' example of the result of President Reagan's ''deliberately packing the NLRB with members who are anti-union and anti-labor.''
AFL-CIO quickly joined the UAW in condemning the NLRB decision. Charles McDonald, a federation attorney, said, ''This means that an employer can now say that if a union does not do what it is asked to, the employer will pack up and go elsewhere.''