Trucking industry representatives are backing away from management calls for wage and benefit cuts in upcoming national contract talks with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, even though the union hierarchy tacitly has agreed to such reductions in "breakaway contracts" bargained locally.
The reason is rank-and-file resistance to the local wage "rollbacks" and the resultant fear among both industry and union leaders that a drive for wage concessions at the national level could lead to damaging labor unrest.
"We have a lot of people who want rollbacks and who believe they are necessary" to help the financially stalled trucking industry, said a ranking official of Trucking Management Inc., the industry bargaining arm.
"But that may not be realistic. Turning back the clock is very difficult," said the industry official, who requested anonymity.
The difficulty was demonstrated Sept. 24 when the National Grievance Committee, composed of Teamster and TMI officials, rescinded a wage-cut plan in force at Jones Motor, a medium-sized trucking firm based in Spring City, Pa.
The plan, in violation of the current National Master Freight Agreement governing Teamster-TMI relations, was put into effect last June with the full knowledge of Teamster national leaders, according to Jones Motor President Donald R. Sheehy.
Under the Jones program, 98 percent of the company's 2,800 employes individually agreed to make "earnings contributions" to help Jones' general commodities division recoup operating losses that were running as high as $900,000 a quarter. The "contributions" would decline in proportion to the company's rising profitability.
Sheehy told his employes then -- and repeated to The Washington Post Thursday -- that the "earnings participation plan" was needed "to preserve jobs . . . and avoid a major economic tragedy."
"We went to the Teamsters' leaders in Washington first, before we went to our workers with this plan," Sheehy said. "We discussed it with Teamster General President Roy Williams. We cleared it with the Teamsters officials.
"They told us that they were not in a position to include the plan in the NMFA. But they said they wouldn't interfere with it as long as our employes voluntarily agreed to it," Sheehy said, without specifying which Teamster officials tacitly approved the arrangement.
Aides said Williams could not be reached for comment. Other ranking Teamster officials similarly were reported "out of town" or otherwise unavailable for comment.
The Jones plan was overturned on a petition to the National Grievance Committee brought by Frank Sheeran, president of Local 326, which has members employed at a Jones facility in Wilmington, Del. A companion complaint was filed by lawyer Thomas Jennings on behalf of Philadelphia Teamsters Local 107.
Jennings contended that the grievance committee's action, which is expected to affect nearly 29 other "breakaway contracts" in which Teamster wage concessions were granted, proves that the union's hierarchy will move against such contract infractions "when things are done through the established grievance system." Industry sources interviewed by The Washington Post agree with that assessment.
But many rank-and-file Teamsters, particularly those in the small, dissident Teamsters for a Democratic Union, say the grievance committee only acted to dampen growing discontent.
"There's an overwhelming feeling among the Teamster rank and file -- many of whom are not associated with us -- that the union is selling them out and is in bed with the companies," said Ken Paff, a TDU organizer and spokesman.
True or not, the situation presents a political and public relations dilemma to both Teamsters and TMI leaders who, as one industry source put it, "hope to reach an agreement that will be a pacesetter for moderation" in major-industry negotiations, most of which begin next year.
Trucking executives such as Sheehy -- who has broken off relations with TMI and is seeking a separate agreement with the Teamsters -- want the wage cuts that TMI executives seemingly are reluctant to seek. Teamster President Williams has agreed publicly that the ailing industry needs some kind of wage relief. But, according to industry and labor sources, he can't risk doing anything that will furher rankle his rank and file.