Although actual contract bargaining does not begin for several months, the size of the wage pattern for next year's new round of labor negotiations is beginning to come into focus -- and the news is not good for the Reagan administration's short-term hopes of bringing down inflation.
Private conversations between top government officials and the chief executive of one of the major corporations involved in next year's negotiations indicate the company is prepared to settle for wage increases of between 11 percent and 13 percent a year for the next three years.
Although government officials decline to name the corporation, there are strong indications it was General Electric Co. General Electric officials would not comment on the reports.
Next year's negotiations are particularly important because they mark the start of a new, three-year round of bargaining. Wage settlements in 1982 are expected to set the pattern for negotiations in 1983 and 1984.
Traditionally, the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers unions are the pattern setters for the three-year bargaining cycle. But 1982 is apt to be different. Both unions are faced with extraordinary economic problems in the trucking and auto industries -- problems that are apt to force major change and concessions that will not be transferable immediately to other industries up for contract renegotiation.
The nation's trucking industry has been hit hard by federal deregulation. Teamster officials testified before Congress last June that approximately 100,000 union jobs have been lost in the trucking industry as the result of deregulation. They argue that the lack of regulation has allowed small, nonunion trucking companies to underbid union employers on lucrative routes while not being required to serve less-profitable customers.
As a result of the job loss, the Teamster leadership has been talking of concessions, particularly in the wage area; union President Roy Williams has expressed a willingness to defer direct wage increases for enlarged cost-of-living protection.
The economic problems of the auto industry do not need further explanation. Thousands of union jobs already have been lost in the industry, and the future continues to look bleak for most of the auto companies. The UAW and the major automakers already have begun exploring the possibility of establishing a profit-sharing program and possibly employment guarantees in exchange for major union wage concessions. But these concessions are not apt to spill over into other manufacturing industries in the new bargaining cycle, although they will be extremely important later.
This leaves General Electric as the most likely pattern setter in next year's round of bargaining. Company contracts with the International Union of Electrical Workers and United Electrical Workers Union expire early next summer, and GE officials readily admit they have been having a good year.
The apparent goal in next year's GE negotiations will be to eliminate, or at least trim, the cost-of-living protection granted union employes under the contract. Unions at GE have been steadily improving their cost-of-living protection since the mid-1960s. In the last round of bargaining in 1979, the unions managed to remove the ceiling from cost-of-living benefits so that they now earn an extra penny an hour for every 0.2 percent rise in the consumer price index.
Most major corporations have become convinced that the only way to stabilize their future labor costs is to get rid of cost-of-living protection. To do this, however, most corporate negotiators recognize they will have to "buy out" the unions with comparatively high wage increases. This certainly is the situation at General Electric.
There is no indication how the electrical unions will react to any proposal to get rid of cost-of-living protection, but the 33-year history of cost-of-living clauses has shown that unions often have been willing to trade away the protection for other benefits.