Pattern-setting bargaining may take a nosedive in the round of major-industry contract talks beginning next year.
Auto, trucking, petroleum, rubber, electrical and meatpacking unions will go to the bargaining table. But some economists and labor leaders are saying that agreements reached in those talks may not be as influential as they once were in serving as models -- or setting the pattern -- for company-by-company bargaining within the affected industries.
A troubled national economy is forcing many companies to cut costs, often by cutting jobs and closing plants. Major unions, in turn, are being forced to bargain to the needs of the individual plant or company in order to save endangered product lines and jobs, according to labor economist Audrey Freedman.
"Pattern bargaining will be replaced by individuation in many cases," said Freedman, a senior research associate at The Conference Board, a New York-based economic research organization.
"Individuation means you will have deviations from patterns" in response to "particular situations found in particular plants or companies." As a result, each deviation probably will stand alone, having little or no effect on other contracts under negotiation, Freedman said.
Evidence of individuation, a key change in the way many major-industry contracts have been reached in the past 25 years, already is showing in hard-pressed industries, such as auto, trucking and rubber.
Downshifts in auto manufacturing sent the United Auto Workers and the then-financially tottering Chrysler Corp. back to the bargaining table three times since 1979 for "contract reopeners" in which the union coughed up $1.068 billion in negotiated wages and benefits.
General Motors and the Ford Motor Co. sought similar concessions. The UAW said no. But both companies are poised to seek tailor-made givebacks from the union in new contract negotiations that start next July.
UAW President Douglas A. Fraser said in a recent Detroit interview that he is willing to listen to the companies' pleas. But he said GM and Ford, respectively the nation's first and second-ranked automakers, "will have to prove that they have been placed at a competitive disadvantage" by the union's concessions to third-ranked Chrysler.
"They are three different companies. GM and Ford do not suffer from the same disadvantages" affecting Chrysler, Fraser said.
In Washington over the weekend, Fraser said in a taped interview for "Newsmaker Saturday" (Cable News Network) that he does not expect individuation to lead to plant-by-plant bargaining in the auto industry. "That won't happen. The companies won't stand for it," he said. But he said he expects upcoming negotiations to be settled according to the economic realities existing at each company.
Leaders of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, seeking to rejuvenate the ailing trucking industry, are prepared to take similar remedial steps. The Teamsters last week agreed to reopen their 1979 National Master Freight Agreement as soon as possible this year. Bargaining normally would have started in 1982, several months before the contract's scheduled expiration on March 31 of next year.
Teamsters leaders will be seeking a continued cost of living allowance (COLA) in the advanced talks. But the union's officials are expected to request a modest wage package in bargaining designed to meet the individual needs of carriers hard hit by the double whammy of inflation and trucking deregulation.
Since deregulation became an economic fact of life a little more than a year ago, many union-operated trucking firms have had difficulty keeping up with higher costs and with their nonunion competition, which has lower overhead. The union, by its own estimate, has lost more than 100,000 trucking jobs, and the companies, by their figuring, have lost millions of dollars in business.
Freedman and other economists said some carriers already have won wage concessions from their unionized employes in a desperate bid to keep rolling. Other carriers can be expected to seek similar treatment.
"Management is aware of the increased costs and the rising nonunion competition in trucking and other industries. You can safely assume that, as a result, they are going to be a lot tougher in bargaining next year," said Harry Mortimer Douty, a Washington-based labor economist and consultant.
Rudolph A. Oswald, economic research director for the AFL-CIO, also said he expects unions going to the bargaining table next year to show "considerable concern over inflation and job security."
In some instances, concern over inflation might be manifested by drives for better COLA clauses. But unions probably will exercise great caution in making any economic demands that could harm or kill companies employing their members, Oswald said.