General Motors agreement sets important labor negotiating pattern

The pattern set by the contract between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and General Motors (GM) is holding - at least so far. The newly announced tentative contract between the UAW and the Ford Motor Company is said to closely follow the one at GM. Traditionally these contracts have been very important, because they have set a pattern for collective bargaining agreements in other manufacturing industries.

But this time, experts question how much of an impact the automakers' contract will have. Says a spokesman for International Harvester, ''I think traditional-pattern bargaining is going out the window.''

In good times, ''the easy way out has been to accept someone else's wage,'' says Herbert R. Northrup, director of the industrial research unit at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. But ''recession has ... forced employers to bargain that much harder.''

Professor Northrup says the latest recession has affected individual companies in different ways, making it harder for one agreement to cover several companies. Already there are signs that pattern bargaining already is breaking down.

In July, National Steel Corporation pulled out of the industry's multiemployer bargaining unit. This Sunday, the Chicago-based Motor Carriers Labor Advisory Council said it would no longer go along with the national master freight agreement negotiated by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The national contract discriminates against small and regional carriers, the Chicago council chairman said.

Even within the auto industry,the pattern set by the automakers' contract may not be as effective, industry analysts say.

''They can't follow it,'' says one auto company official who asked not to be named. ''The auto component manufacturers have been squeezed and squeezed and squeezed.''

Not all the component manufacturers have been hit by the recession the same way.

''There has been a tremendous squeeze,'' says Don Decker, public relations director of the Dana Corporation, a Toledo-based manufacturer of axles, drive shafts, and other parts, primarily for trucks. But ''I think we weathered it extremely well.'' Dana has remained profitable throughout the recession, he adds.

But other component manufacturers say privately that they are looking for concessions from the pattern contract, just as they got in the last round of bargaining.

''We made some little headway,'' says one company spokesman. ''We're hoping for even more.''

Recession has also thrown off the timing of traditional-pattern bargaining, Northrup says. Some companies were forced to open contract talks early. Chrysler's contract, for example, doesn't run out until next year. Contract negotiations with major farm- and construction-equipment manufacturers also won't come due this year.

International Harvester's contract has expired, but recently the Chicago-based farm-implement and truck manufacturer and the UAW agreed to extend it indefinitely.

Any extended lag between the pattern-setting contract and other contract negotiations tends to weaken the influence of the former, experts say, because economic conditions can change.

''So many things can happen,'' says Mr. Decker of Dana. The company has about 15 locations that come under a master UAW contract, but which doesn't expire until December 1986.

''The situation is so diverse from industry to industry,'' says Richard Hurd, a labor economist at the University of New Hampshire. ''When times are bad, you have to be more creative on both sides.''

One possible twist, he says, is that management in healthy industries will try to use the General Motors agreement to set a pattern of low wage hikes. GM auto workers only got a small pay increase in return for a program to increase job security.

Pattern bargaining is easy when virtually all companies are using the same labor pool, labor economists say. But when goods made overseas begin making significant inroads in a country, then the domestic labor pool begins to feel the competition from foreign workers. And that makes it harder for unions to use pattern bargaining in contract negotiations, these economists add.

Nor has labor's cause been helped by Reagan administration policies, adds Professor Hurd, which has given unions less protection from management under the National Labor Relations Board.

''The pattern is being broken by the economic and political times,'' he says. ''Patterning is going to go on.'' But it may not be as discernible as in the past.

And, labor economists add, it may no longer be set by the automakers but by some other large, powerful, and highly visible union.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.