Rail, postal workers are in a demanding mood this contract time

Railroad workers and postal employees are warning that employers will run into labor problems if they try to force contract concessions in bargaining schedules to open in the next few weeks.

The negotiations that involve nearly 1 million workers are expected to underscore the bargaining aggressiveness of unions after several years of moderation that have substantially lowered the level of contract settlements. While the railroad and postal negotiations will have no direct affect on the big auto and other industrial contract talks this year, both will be watching closely.

The situation:

* Unions representing most of the railroad industry's workers have filed bargaining notices that they will seek wage increases amounting to 30 percent over three years, continuing cost-of-living adjustments, expanded benefits, work rules changes, and other gains. About 300,000 workers will be involved and hard bargaining is expected as railroads try to hold down a further excalation of labor costs.

* The US Postal Service, looking ahead to bargaining this year, has said that employees are better paid than workers in comparable jobs in the private sector. It says that bargaining should try to correct this situation. Unions representing 610,000 postal workers quickly warned that they will ''refuse any form of wage concession bargaining'' and if the quasi-public Postal Service insists on concessions, the negotiations will be ''fraught with much danger.''

The two situations are different from the usual labor-management bargaining relationship. Railroad contract negotiations come under the Railway Labor Act, which requires slow-moving procedures, often taking more than a year, before unions can be free to strike. The Postal Service, while not directly a government agency, comes under federal legislation that prohibits strikes.

However, most railroad and postal unions are part of AFL-CIO and are similar to industrial and government employee unions in the basic outlook and mood of their members.

In the railroad industry, 11 unions have formally filed bargaining notices. They will bargain separately, but have coordinated demands. Under federal law, the parties must begin negotiations within 30 days after notices are filed; talks will begin for most unions in the next week or two.

The unions want 5 percent wage increases every six months beginning July 1, and they want to eliminate a 4 percent annual limit on cost-of-living increases. They are asking for more health-and-welfare benefits, more time off, higher overtime pay, and job protection against ''contracting out'' work that they say should only be done by workers under their contracts.

Railroads are faring better financially but will oppose demands that would raise labor costs; an industry official said the companies are still fighting for survival.

The Postal Service showed a profit of $1.4 billion in the past two years, but it says it must hold down labor costs (80 percent of its total cost) to compete with private carriers. Present contracts with the National Association of Letter Carriers, American Postal Workers, and National Post Office Mail Handlers expire July 20.

The Postal Service would like to set a lower wage rate on newly hired employees; reclassify job skills (unions say employees could face pay cuts); and use more parttime workers. If no agreement is reached by mid-July, the government can order a 45-day fact-finding period and a further 45 days of negotiations, with binding arbitration, if the dispute is not settled then.

Vincent Sombretto, president of the letter carriers association, said in Washington a few days ago that although a strike would be illegal, it might, in some instances, be ''a viable option'' to arbitration.

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