United Airlines was targeted yesterday for reprisals by the Carter administration for violating its wage guidelines.But officials conceded United may lose nothing more than a few thousand traveling bureaucrats.
At the same time, in a potentially more far-reaching action to shore up its wobbly anti-inflation program, the administration found that a "pattern" contract for the rubber industry probably violates the guidelines, too.
The preliminary challenge to the rubber agreement triggers a process that could lead to more costly sanctions than United faces, including denial of federal contracts, now worth an estimated $400 million or more to the nation's major tire manufacturers.
The crackdown on United and the rubber companies was approved by President Carter's collective bargaining advisory committee, a high-level group headed by Labor Secretary Ray Marshall and including anti-inflation adviser Alfred E. Kahn and chief economic adviser Charles Schultz.
Sources said any reprisals are contingent on whether the Supreme court indicates it will act quickly on an AFL-CIO challenge to the legality of the government's sanctions against guideline violators.
They said no sanctions will be invoked if the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case this summer. Yesterday the court asked the Justice Department to respond by Saturday to the AFL-CIO's request for an expedited appeal but did not indicate whether it will hear the case.
The AFL-CIO is appealing a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that upheld President Carter's power to deny federal contracts to guideline violators. A lower court had ruled that he lacks such power.
In its approach to the United and rubber agreements, the administration is drawing a firmer line than it did two months ago with the Teamsters union when it employed numerous exemptions to squeeze the contract into the wage guideline of 7 percent a year or 22.5 percent compounded over three years. Union and industry bargainers calculated the cost at more than 30 percent over three years.
One administration official said the three-year rubber agreement amounts to 26 percent for Goodrich and Firestone and 27 percent for Uniroyal, with Goodyear still in negotiations.
The official said the United agreement, which was reached last month after nearly a two-month strike, amounts to 37 percent over three years, 3 percent above the airlines industry pattern established last year by Trans World Airlines.
Officials said yesterday's decisions, including a policy determination that strikes are not an acceptable justification for noncompliance, mean that the administration intends to stick by the guidelines despite mounting criticism of their effectiveness in curbing inflation.
But they acknowledged that the administration's leverage over a company like United, which has few if any government contracts exceeding the $5 million threshhold for cut-off sanctions, is limited.
Aside from "jawboning" by the White House, they said anti-inflation advisers will probably suggest to Carter that he urge government officials not to fly on United when other options are available.
"We recognize that United took a costly strike to stay within the guidelines, but the basic problem is that the contract is out of compliance and a strike doesn't change that fact," said one official.
Moreover, although the "Big Four" rubber companies have major government contracts, officials concede that many may be out of reach because of national security needs. There is also the politically sensitive question of whether the government should rely on foreign producers such as Michelin, they noted.
The collective bargaining committee also discussed the possibility of barring government purchase of motor vehicles and other products made with guideline-tainted rubber, but industry officials expressed doubt as to whether this would prove effective.