Labor pressures for higher pay and more expensive benefits are increasing, but settlements in major industries this year are not likely to rise dramatically from the 3.4 percent annually in new contracts the first quarter of 1984.
It appears certain that settlements will be larger - and union concessions fewer - in collective bargaining this year. The economy has turned around from the recession levels in 1982-83 that led to wage freezes and pay cuts, which unions accepted to save plants and jobs.
Profits are rising strongly in the auto industry, which is about to open bargaining with the United Auto Workers (UAW). Other industries are also reporting improved profits. Unemployment, although still high, at least appears to be stabilized; there is now more rehiring than layoffs and dismissals.
While workers may be less leery of losing their jobs, they are feeling a continuing tight squeeze from high prices, and now are concerned about higher inflation. Complaining that workers' real weekly earnings have reached $172.59 in March, compared with $186.39 in the same month of 1979, unions are demanding more money. Their demands are being felt now in United States Postal Service negotiations, in the nation's coal fields, and in other bargaining - and soon will be a strong factor in auto negotiations.
Higher wages, backed by continued cost-of-living adjustment or ''escalator'' clauses in contracts, could set a pattern of hefty settlements affecting millions of workers this year and into 1985. Robert Ortner, chief economist for the US Department of Commerce, recently said, ''The nation's economic outlook at this time is to a great extent in the hands of labor and management.''
There were few signs of stronger wage-settlement pressures in the first quarter of 1984 - but there was relatively little major bargaining then. According to Labor Department reports, just released, large collective-bargaining agreements in the period yielded average wage increases of 3 percent in the first year and 3.4 percent annually over the term of the new contracts.
About 20 percent of the 322,000 unionized workers involved in bargaining in early 1984 agreed to concessions in contracts during the first year. The remaining 80 percent of the unionized workers involved in first-quarter settlements had wage increases that averaged 5.1 percent in the first year.
In 1983, 37 percent of all major settlements included concessions to help financially troubled employers; 22 percent froze wages at old rates; and 15 percent cut pay levels.
Concessions are much less likely now. Postal unions, the United Mine Workers, and UAW already have told employers that the day of concessions is past. UAW says this year it intends to bargain in an era of prosperity - maybe unprecedented prosperity.
Late in 1983, a panel of labor experts forecast that the fight for survival by employers, job security of workers, and rising competitive pressures from abroad would hold down wage increases this year. The panel saw increases of ''a modest 5 percent'' this year and about as much in later contract years. However, unemployment has dropped substantially below the panel's predictions and the economic recovery has been stronger. Some of the group now look for settlements above the earlier expectation, perhaps in a 6 to 7 percent range.