New contracts may hint at labor's future

New auto and coal contracts coming before union memberships for ratification could turn out to be among the most important ever. The contracts are expected to have a heavy impact on the both industries, their unions, the economy as a whole, and other industrial relations.

The agreements reached last weekend are still being assessed for total costs and gains for members of the United Automobile Workers employed by General Motors, and members of the United Mine Workers employed by affiliates of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA).

Rank-and-file ratification votes, starting with UMW balloting Sept. 27, are expected to show some opposition but majority approval.

If the UMW's frequently militant and rebellious members in coal fields approve the settlement, it will be the first peaceful agreement negotiated in 18 years and a victory for Richard Trumka - an inexperienced national contract negotiator - in his first term as mine union president.

In winning office, Mr. Trumka, a 35-year-old former coal miner, pledged to do a better bargaining job than predecessors in recent years.

He said there would be ''no backward steps'' in a 1984 settlement, a reference to concessions made in recent years in the form of lower wage gains and ''givebacks'' on benefits and work rules.

While many union miners are grumbling about the terms he has just negotiated, there appears to be agreement that he fulfilled his pledges as far as possible this year.

Now Trumka must face another important promise made to his membership. When he took office in 1982, he pledged to rebuild the United Mine Workers to its former strength and solidarity.

Owen Bieber, first-term president of the UAW, also pledged to win new contracts with no concessions to GM and Ford and with a start toward recouping wage sacrifices during the auto industry's hard times.

Before the months of bargaining with GM and Ford began, Mr. Bieber - a 6 foot , 5 inch former auto-parts worker who became president of an ailing UAW in 1983 - set a moderate course for the union.

Last weekend's talks were ''the toughest ever,'' he said, for GM and the union. The contract includes options that could cost him reelection at the union's next convention.

Bieber says he wanted to win job security for thousands of auto workers threatened with displacement, but was also aware that union members were clamoring for a share of their employers' record profits.

Both Trumka and Bieber have strengthened their positions through settlements without big strikes, but major tests are still ahead for both.

The United Mine Workers, which once had the coal industry solidly unionized, now represents only a little more than half of all coal miners. Of those miners under UMW contracts, tens of thousands have been laid off, about 30,000 in West Virginia alone.

Despite new job guarantees in the GM contract, the United Automobile Workers also face a further decline in auto jobs and union membership.

The UAW rolls have shrunk from 1.5 million in 1979 to barely a million now. Further losses appear likely under controlled employment reductions provided for in the new contract.

The UAW's problem is how to rebuild union ranks at a time when industrial employment is declining as a result of labor-reducing technology and a growing volume of imports.

From an industry standpoint, the UMW and UAW settlements are expensive, but, according to analysts, affordable, at least for the BCOA's large coal operators and for such auto giants as GM and possibly Ford.

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