In the two months since he was picked to head the White House anti-inflation program, Robert Strauss has been telling people that the only tools he has to work with are "a smile and a shoeshine."
Now, suddenly faced with the possibility of strikes by more than a million workers in the postal and railroad industries, the White House is beginning to realize that even Strauss will need more than a smile to deal with organized labor if it hopes to salvage the President's program.
But there already is concern among labor relations experts, both in and out of government, that it may be too late to save the anti-inflation effort.
"There doesn't seem to be anyone who can pull this thing together either at the White House or the Labor Department," notes a government relations official closes to both the rail and postal situation.
The White House has begun to try, however. Late this week the administration began a series of meetings with government labor relations experts at the White House in an attempt to develop a strategy to deal with both sets of negotiations.
The most immediate problem is the postal situation. The contracts between the U.S. Postal Service and unions representing 565.000 workers expire July 20.
The White House, in an effort to set an example for the rest of organized labor, is trying to hold any wage increase to approximately 5.5 percent. The unions aren't having any part of it. As a result, with the contract deadline two weeks away, negotiations are basically at an impasse.
In an effort to get the talks going again, the White House is now looking for a gimmick - possible outside help - to get the talks moving again.
The big fear within the administration is not so much that the postal workers will strike, but that the postal unions will be able to maneuver the President into a corner where he will be forced to endorse an inflationary wage increase to produce a settlement.
The concern is that the president will [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the mistakes he made last winter when he ended up [WORD ILLEGIBLE] involved in negotiations that produced a 37 percent wage increase for striking coal miners.
Of particular concern to government labor relations experts is the fact that the president of the volatile Letter Carriers union, Joseph Vacca, must stand for reelection at his union's convention just nine days after the contract deadline and that he needs a large settlement to win another term.
"The postal people are going to demand a lot of public attention before this thing is over," an administration official said. "Itis going to be difficult keeping this one out of the White House."
To make for its own lack of labor expertise, the White House is reportedly toying with the idea of seeking the aid of an outside panel of experts. This, however, could eventually prove an even bigger problem for the administration than trying to muddle through the negotiations by itself.
If the President appoints a panel of recognized labor experts to help settle the postal negotiations he will be removing himself from control over the eventual size of the wage settlement. Should a panel of outside experts recommend a settlement greater than the president feels he can live with, there will be little the administration can do about it.
In the meantime, negotiations between the nation's railroads and 13 unions representing 450,000 workers are also reported at an impasse.
And like the postal situation, the internal political situation within some of the unions is addinging to the pressure for a large wage settlement.
Unlike the postal workers, howver, the railroad workers are not barred from striking to get their wage demands. In the past, the unions have successfully staged a series of hit and run strikes against various carriers to achieve their contract goals.
The administration's current dilemma appears to stem from the fact that the basic design of the president's anti-inflation program comes from economists with little, if any, labor relations expertise.
Until recently, the White House was still warning that the big labor threat to the President's anti-inflation program comes from economists with little, if any, labor relations expertise.
Until recently, the White House was still warning that the big labor threat to the President's program was next year's Teamster negotiations - the traditional start of a new three-year bargaining cycle for the nation's major unions.
Negotiations this year, they argued [WORD ILLEGIBLE] simply the tail end of the old bargaining cycle and there [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the wages negotiated by unions in the postal and railroad industries would not serve as a pattern for next year's bargaining.
But that was before the president became involved in last winter's coal negotiations.