The Carter administration balked over a proposed pattern-setting wage increase for oil refinery workers today and sent the government's top mediators here to prevent a bargaining collapse and possible strike.
These moves - plus an assertion in Washington by Federal Reserve Chairman G. William Miller - underscored the importance the administration attaches to the refinery negotiations, the first major round of contract bargaining under President Carter's voluntary anti-inflation program.
"If the OCAW (Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union) settlement should come in compliance with the administration's standards, it's clearly a signal we're on our way (to making the guidelines stick)," Miller told a business luncheon at The Washington Post.
The OCAW bargaining committee scheduled a meeting and major announcement for Wednesday morning, and probed the oil companies tonight for new offers.
Carter's wage-price guidelines seek to impose a 7 percent limit on wage and benefit increases, and the oil companies have been sticking to it. Last Sunday, just before the OCAW's current contracts expired, Standard Oil of Indiana (Amoco) offered a 73 cents per hour wage increase for 1979, with new employes to be hired at old wage rates and 1980 wages to be negotiated at a later date. Officials said the offer falls within the 7 percent range for Amoco's roughly 6,000 OCAW workers.
In an attempt to ascertain whether the Amoco offer could be used as a pattern for settlements with all 100 oil companies involved in the bargaining, OCAW president A. F. Grospiron asked administration officials to clarify whether the Amoco offer meets the guiielines and can be applied industry-wide.
One question, according to industry sources, is whether a 73 cents an hour increase would violate the 7 percent ceiling for companies with a lower wage average than Amoco's. Amoco calculates its wage base at $9.34 an hour, including shift differential. The union has used an industry-wide figure of $8.82. This could mean an industry-wide increase of more than 7 percent if 73 cents is allowed for all companies. The guidelines permit pattern, or "tandem," bargaining but it is not clear whether this situation quallfies.
As a result of Grospiron's request, Wayne L. Horvitz, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, flew here this morning to convey the government's position and work out a possible solution.
But, after a two-hour meeting at the union's headquarters, Grospiron indicated the government had not given an immediate go-ahead for an industry-wide settlement on the Amoco pattern.
Although contracts covering 60,000 OCAW oil workers expired at midnight Sunday, Grospiron kept them on the job while he explored the Amoco offer and its prospects for an industry-wide settlement. Government approval was crucial because all the big oil companies, concerned about their public images and about possible government retaliation, have said they intend to stick to the guidelines.