A bargaining struggle is building between unions demanding wage and benefits increases to make up for past concessions and employers determined to keep tight curbs on labor costs in 1985. The issue is critical in the strike by 5,753 mechanics and other employees of Pan American World Airways, now in its second week. It has come up in negotiations under way in the trucking and rubber industries, and it emerged earlier in a United Automobile Workers' strike against International Harvester.
Before negotiations wind up in late fall, as many as 500,000 workers may be involved in difficult bargaining -- and, for some, strikes -- to regain pay and benefits given up in the past few years to help financially troubled employers stay in business.
``We stepped forward when they needed concessions, and now we'd like them back,'' a New York-area member of the Transport Workers' Union (TWU) said last week on a Pan Am picket line.
The International Harvester walkout by 12,000 workers ended quickly in a compromise; the UAW won back paid days off that were given up to help IH in 1982 and part of the wage gains it sought -- plus an improved job security program.
In Pan Am's case, the Airline Pilots' Association settled before the mechanics' strike began, in a compromise on payments of deferred raises. After refusing to cross TWU picket lines for a week, the pilots returned to planes to help the airline ``restore normal service'' as quickly as possible.
Pan Am's other unions stuck to bargaining demands -- TWU continuing its strike ``in full force'' and the Independent Flight Attendants Association and International Brotherhood of Teamsters threatening to walk out April 1. A fifth union, the Flight Engineers International, was taking a more moderate course last weekend.
The arguments being raised are common in 1985 bargaining. Unions contend that the economy has turned up and employers, having cut heavy losses, should now give back what workers surrendered. Employers say that while their positions may now be sounder, they cannot afford substantial givebacks this year, risks are still too great.
The United Rubber Workers (URW) says it wants a settlement ``totally in tune with the times,'' including a ``meaningful'' wage increase for its 130,000 members this year.
The URW is one of the few major unions that did not give wage and other concessions in the past three years, after settling in 1982 without raises. It says the industry ``has done rather well and is expected to do well in 1985,'' although some problems persist. So URW president Milan Stone says it is time for workers ``to get a fair slice of the economic pie'' with wage increases.
In trucking, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) is unusually vulnerable this year. Deregulation and the recent deep recession have left the industry in such a poor condition that IBT demands are not likely to be pressed aggressively.
Even the union's dissident groups appear ready to compromise. There is little talk of strikes as an April 1 contract deadline approaches. Instead there is talk of finding at ``something that will be ratified by workers and that won't drive companies out of business.'' -- 30 --