Owen Bieber, a 6-foot, 5-inch bear of a man, is about to walk a tightrope. Mr. Bieber, the recently elected president of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), will soon lead his union through some of its toughest and most important negotiations ever. Contracts with Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corporation expire this fall, and early next month a special union convention will set the bargaining agenda.
If the union exacts too much from the car companies in wages and benefits, experts say, more auto-related jobs will move overseas or to nonunion plants in the United States. With the number of working union members down 27 percent since 1979, that is not a result union officials would welcome.
But if the gray-haired, cordial union leader isn't tough enough on the auto companies, support from union members will slip away, especially since the companies soon will announce record profits for 1983.
''The management of the union has to ride a really fine line,'' says Martin Anderson, head of the auto industry project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
''Nineteen eighty-four is going to be a tough set of negotiations,'' Bieber admitted in a recent interview in his office overlooking the semifrozen Detroit River. But he contends a settlement can be reached, ''I hope without getting in a strike situation.''
The outcome of Bieber's balancing act will touch millions of Americans who have never set foot in an auto plant: The industry still accounts for 1 out of every 9 manufacturing jobs in the US.
In addition to influencing domestic car prices, the contract could set a pattern for other US smokestack industries that have been struggling to become competitive with foreign producers. The UAW's new contracts may help answer the question of whether workers and management can divide up the early results of an improving competitive position without endangering continued gains.
And the outcome of the negotiations will have an immediate impact on the economic health of the thousands of companies that supply goods to the auto industry. (Ford's North American operations alone have 25,000 suppliers.)
The rhetoric from both labor and management is less strident now than in the early stages of previous talks, longtime Detroit-watchers say.
Still, both Bieber and his auto company counterparts are staking out bargaining positions.
''Unless the bottom falls out of the economy between now and September, (the 1984 contract) is not going to be a rerun of 1982, because the times don't call for it,'' Bieber says. In 1982 the UAW made wage, benefit, and work-rule concessions that saved the industry billions of dollars when it was reeling from the recession.
Given the profits car companies are now making, ''Workers have a right to share in those profits,'' Bieber says.
''Profits are primarily to be reapplied in the business, not to be dissipated by restored inefficiencies or frittered away by quarreling antagonists,'' Ford board chairman Philip Caldwell told a recent luncheon gathering here. ''We cannot yet afford to add cream to our coffee or pass each other another slice of cake.''
Bargaining rhetoric aside, ways of providing increased job security will likely play a major role in coming negotiations. Greater security is much desired by union members and can be structured so it does not hurt the industry's cost competitiveness as much as major wage gains.
''Job security is going to be a top priority when we go to the table in September,'' Bieber says. During the past recession, workers with 15 to 18 years of seniority were laid off. ''That isn't going to evaporate from their minds for a long time,'' he says.
Health care costs will be a more contentious area of the negotiations. The auto companies want workers to share in health care costs as a means of cutting the overall bill for such services, and also as a way of getting workers to pressure health care providers to hold down fees.
Individual union members are greatly concerned about the cost of health care. As a result, Bieber contends that ''this union is not going to accept any messing around with co-payments or deductibles in the health care field.''
The union is more flexible on the issue of work rules, the regulations that specify which worker can handle a certain job. The auto companies argue that by simplifying work rules, major producivity gains are possible.
The UAW has a number of experiments under way in which the auto companies are reducing the number of job classifications in new and selected remodeled plants. In such plants, Bieber says, ''the new equipment that comes in requires some new classifications and maybe reduces others.''
Overall, the union must try to seek a settlement that does not significantly erode the cost competitiveness of US plants. Without labor cost containment, there will be a ''much more precipitous drop (in union membership) as business moves outside the country. Not just finished products, but every part of the component structure,'' warns David Cole, director of the office for the study of automotive transportation at the University of Michigan.
Selling that idea to union members will take great salesmanship from the UAW leadership. And Bieber, an honest, intelligent man, who had been married to the same woman for 33 years, has somewhat less charisma to bring to the selling job than his predecessor, Douglas Fraser.
While GM workers expect to get a $600 profit-sharing payment this spring, they have given up roughly $5,500 in lost wages, notes Peter Kelly, president of UAW Local 160 in Warren, Mich. ''That is not a very good investment,'' the union critic notes.
And since foreign workers can match any pay cut US labor accepts, ''I don't see concessions saving jobs.''