Ongoing copper strike may erode US labor bargaining patterns

About 1,700 striking copper miners and their families face a second Christmas with belts tightened and dwindling hopes of returning to jobs with the Phelps Dodge Company in Arizona and Texas.

Members of 13 unions struck the major copper producer on July 1, 1983, in a labor contract dispute. There has been no progress toward a settlement in 17 months, as Phelps Dodge continues to operate with supervisors and newly recruited production workers denounced as ''strikebreakers'' by the United Steel Workers (USW) and a dozen smaller unions.

The fight between the company and union is primarily over the company's refusal to go along with an industry bargaining-pattern agreement and its insistence on negotiating contract terms that fit its own particular needs. In other 1983 negotiations, the unions, led by the USW, gave concessions intended to bolster the severely depressed copper industry. Phelps Dodge, which claimed that its contract had higher labor costs than competitive companies, asked for other concessions.

The struggle against acceptance of an industry bargaining-pattern agreement could have an important effect on 1985 labor talks, particularly those in the trucking industry. Many employers under contract with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters have broken away from past bargaining policies and said they will negotiate on a one-to-one basis with the IBT starting in March.

The United Steel Workers also faces a partial breakup of traditional industrywide bargaining when it negotiates with the steel industry.

USW president Lynn Williams told a mid-November rally of Phelps Dodge strikers in Tucson, Ariz., that their strike is ''one of the greatest causes the labor movement has faced'' in more than three decades. ''You are battling for all labor,'' Mr. Williams said. ''You are not alone. You have the support of the labor movement.''

The strongest support has come from the USW, although other unions have contributed to strike relief funds and are now collecting money, food, clothing, and toys for strikers' families for the holidays. The USW has spent about $10 million to support the strike and has pledged to continue to provide financial help ''for as long as it takes to achieve strike goals.''

AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland and other representatives of the national labor movement attended a Tucson rally Nov. 19 to reinforce the drooping spirits of the strikers. Mr. Kirkland told the gathering, to which strikers were bused from four Phelps Dodge operations in Arizona and one in Texas, that the ''entire trade-union movement'' is ''solidly in support'' of the strike.

While the strike still appears to have a solid base, hundreds who walked out have returned to jobs. Phelps Dodge is still in operation. And the striking unions appear in jeopardy of losing bargaining rights through decertification votes conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. The official results have not been announced, but with strikers barred from voting, unofficial counts show that El Paso, Texas, workers rejected representation by a striking union and Arizona workers also appear to have voted to oust the unions.

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