When wage-price inflation started to heat up in the summer of l970, the Nixon administration began searching for a way to open up communications with labor and management on possible anti-inflation plans without attracting a great deal of public attention.
At the time, AFL-CIO President George Meany was having no part of the administration's attempts to re-establish the Labor-Management Advisory Committee first set up by the Kennedy White House. Meany had walked off the committee in the late 1960s to protest the Johnson administration's wage-price guideposts.
Nixon's answer: the National Commission on Productivity.
The tripartite commission, with equal numbers from labor, management and government, served as the forum for the sensitive anti-inflation negotiations while leaving individual members free to take whatever public stance they wanted on the wage-price problems facing the nation. The commission served as the major negotiating forum with labor and management until the summer of 1971 when the White House imposed wage-price controls
Now, more than a decade later, the Reagan administration is toying once again with the idea of creating a tripartite Productivity Committee. But this time, it will have to do without most of labor.
The idea of creating a committee was proposed to labor earlier this summer. After weeks of deliberation within the federation, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland decided to serve on the new committee. "He decided he couldn't really refuse the president," an associate said last week.
But that was before the the president fired the nation's striking air traffic controllers. Two weeks ago, Kirkland wrote the White House saying that, in view of the president's action, he no longer was willing to serve on the proposed committee.
Taking their cue from Kirkland, William Wynn, president of the Commercial Food Workers Union, and Robert Georgine, president of the AFL-CIO Build ing and Construction Trades Department, also withdrew from the committee.
As originally proposed by the Reagan administration, the new Productivity Committee would be headed by former Treasury secretary William Simon and would include 4 Cabinet officers, 15 business executives and at least 5 labor leaders.
The Cabinet officers were expected to be the secretaries of Commerce, Labor and Treasury and possibly the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Business leaders included Justin Dart, Reagan's longtime friend; C. Jackson Grayson, the head of the American Productivity Center; and TRW Chairman Reuben Mettler.
It was unclear just who the other union leaders would be besides the three AFL-CIO union leaders who resigned from the committee. One of the other two labor officials was from the Teamsters, but it was not Teamsters President Roy Williams, who is under federal indictment. The other union leader was from "the gang of 14 that Reagan has put together from the maritime and building trades unions," an AFL-CIO official said this week.
Also unclear is whether the White House still plans to go ahead with the committee now that labor basically has pulled out. But in light of the increasingly bitter relationship between the White House and the AFL-CIO, such a group cannot serve as a sounding board with labor for any future economic policy decisions, and trying to determine national productivity policy without labor is like trying to run a car without wheels.