Dramatic shifts in contract bargaining power from unions to employers could mean smaller wage gains for workers, only moderate rises in labor costs for employers, and improvements in the competitive position of many companies at home and abroad. These findings by the Conference Board, a New York research and reporting service, last week confirmed developments that have been increasingly apparent over the past several years: Employers have become more militant and successful in bargaining, unions more vulnerable.
The Conference Board says major changes have occurred as a result of growing competitive pressures on employers and unions and of the impact of two severe recessions.
It also notes that companies are bargaining more realistically, on the basis of the productivity of employees, their market position, and their profitability.
Company negotiators are now ``tougher and more disciplined,'' according to the Conference Board's senior research associate, Audrey Freedman.
``There has been a widespread turnaround in corporate wage-setting practices,'' the board's report notes. ``There has been a fundamental shift. . . . Management has increasingly gained the upper hand in negotiations. Unions have lost their industrywide influence over wages.''
Ms. Freedman predicts that with competition certain to remain intense, American business ``is not likely to return to the wage-imitation habits that prevailed in the 1970s.''
Hourly earnings in manufacturing, which soared by an annual rate of 8.5 percent between 1978 and '80, have averaged gains of only 4.3 percent a year over the past three years.
In 1984, settlements with unions provided the lowest average wage increases (2.3 percent annually) since the government began keeping bargaining statistics 17 years ago. The average in 1983 was also less than 3 percent.
The Conference Board underscored that ``pattern bargaining'' by unions has lost ground in recent years. This is a strategy that concentrates on a settlement with one employer that is vulnerable to labor pressures and able to afford a larger contract increase, and then tries to force the same terms on other companies.
The long Phelps Dodge strike, now apparently lost by the United Steelworkers and a dozen smaller unions, has roots in the company's refusal to meet a copper industry pattern that it says is not applicable.
Mine strikes that led to recent violence in the coal fields also resulted from employer resistance to industrywide terms.
Trucking employers have split apart, between those able to afford substantial union settlements and those who cannot.
Troubles could be ahead if the International Brotherhood of Teamsters tries to force a nationwide pattern in the bargaining now under way.
There are similar divisions between the ``haves'' and the ``have nots'' in rubber, electrical manufacturing, and other industries that have negotiations coming up this year.
Although 1984 was an unusually strike-free year, troubles could lie ahead.
In addition to the industry pattern issue, many employers report that they plan to demand ``givebacks'' in the benefits field, largely in health benefits that have risen in cost, and time off with pay.
Unions are generally committed to oppose further concessions to employers.
Despite the tougher bargaining stance by employers in the last several years, 76 percent of the companies surveyed by the Conference Board reported smoother management-labor relations, up from 67 percent in 1978. Many employers reported that achieving productivity gains and other goals now means ``working with, or through, the union.''