United Steelworkers officials in Pittsburgh are preparing for what one called "the toughest goddamn negotiations in at least a decade."
In Denver, leaders of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union are talking about "massing troops at the border" for possible stikes against oil companies, should current efforts to renegotiate for substantially higher wages end in failure early next near.
United Auto Worker leaders in Detroit are grim. Like their colleagues in Denver, they also are working on a "wage reopener." But the UAW talks on behalf of 140,000 Chrysler Corp. workers will be to renogotiate for lower wages in a desperate attempt to keep the company and its jobs from being junked.
In short, according to interviews with and reports by labor leaders and analysts, the new year will bring much distress and little pleasure to the collective bargaining table.
They say the reason is that rapacious inflation, depressing recession and scanty productivity have left little to bargain over.
"The lack of adequate productivity improvement, in combination with rapid cost escalation, simply erases the ability of the economy to absorb generous settlements of the sort which have led to steep employment cost increases in the past," said George Moore, vice president of industrial relations at the Bethlehem Steel Corp.
Moore was speaking as a participant in the recent "Labor Outlook 1980" forum sponsored by The Conference Board, a private, international economic study group headquartered in New York.
"The need to improve profitability, productivity, to control costs, and to generate capital for investment will inevetably result in a more hard-line approach to bargaining in many industries," Moore predicted.
Labor leaders generally reject the contention that wage increases have propelled the nation's current 13 percent inflation rate. Instead, they say, in a statement supported by a majority of The Conference Board panel, that real wage gains fell behind the 1979 inflation rate and are likely to trail the 1980 rate as well.
The labor outlook panel put it this way: "While first-year wage and benefit hikes in major contracts (covering 1,000 or more workers) will average 9.5 percent in 1980, inflation will continue to rise between 10 percent and 12 percent producing a decline in real wages" -- the purchasing power of dollars brought home.
The panel added that unemployment, worsened by plant closings in steel and related industries, in expected to average 7 percent in 1980, up from the 6 percent average rate in 1979.
Faced with the prospects of never getting enough pay to keep up with inflation and, in some cases, of losing paychecks altogether, union officials say they will focus on improved pension benefits, job protection and cost of living adjustment (COLA) clauses next year.
No one expects the bargaining to be easy, particularly in the steel industry where contracts covering 280,000 workers expire next August.
Poor returns on corporate investments planned U.S. Steel plant closings that will throw 13,000 people out of work, and increased rank-and-file pressure for an indexed pension cost-of-living plan that is strongly opposed by management all point to "the toughest goddamn negotiations in at least a decade," said United Steelworkers spokesman and analyst Michael Drapkin.
"The present situation can't help, that's for sure," Drapkin said. But, perhaps in a gesture to worried union members, he said Steelworkers President Lloyd McBride "is determined to get what he can" from the bargaining table.
What McBride wants most of all is a pension plan designed to protect alreadly retired and soon-to-be-retired steelworkers from the ravages of inflation. One school of though says he should push for a pension cost-of-living adjustment indexed to fluctuating inflation rates. But the industry turned down flat a similar proposal in 1974 on grounds it involved uncontrollable cost.
"If they did that in 1974 when inflation wasn't so bad, there is no reason to believe they will accept it under the current rate of inflation," another union source said.
As a substitute, McBride might ask for a "meaningful" graduated increase in pension benefits over the life of the new contract. However, Steelworker union sources say there is no certainty that the beleagured industry would even swallow that modified proposal.
"The industry has given some very generous settlements to basic steel workers in the '70s. Now, faced with more foreign competition and lousy returns on investments, it feels it has paid too high a price for labor stability," one union source said.
There is some speculation in Pittsburgh that the industry might invoke the Experimental Negotiating Agreement (ENA) for the first time since its inception in 1973.
Under ENA, the union is not allowed to call a general strike against the industry, and any impasse -- such as is expected in upcoming negotiations -- would be resolved by an outside arbitrator.
However, both union and industry leaders have expressed misgivings about the ENA concept in past years. Some union officials have contended the plan takes away the right to strike. Some industry leaders have said the plan's built-in annual 3 percent minimum wage increase and $150 bonus per employe is too high a price to pay for peace.
Other key collective bargaining talks for 1980 include:
The Communication Workers of America, whose national agreement with Bell Telephone Co. covering 500,000 workers expires in August.
International Longshoremen Association contracts covering 60,000 workers on the East and Gulf Coast, expiring in September.