An important trend appears to be emerging from the early settlements in this year's contract bargaining--creation of a two-tier wage structure.
Settlements in the trucking and meatcutting industries have included the creation of a lower wage scale for new hires in the industry. And this week, Ford Motor Co. included the two-tier structure as part of its new contract proposal with the United Auto Workers union.
In each case, the companies involved have demanded the lower wage structure as part of a package of contract concessions extracted from their unions in exchange for some form of job security.
Under the Ford proposal, new hires would receive 80 percent of the existing contract rates and would have to work for five years before they would be eligible for full wage and cost-of-living benefits. At the same time, the company is proposing a freeze on portions of the pay benefits for the existing work force.
Adding to the potential importance of the two-tier system as a future trend is that the negotiations involve the nation's three largest unions: the UAW, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers. Traditionally settlements with these unions serve as a pattern for other unions because of their broad impact on the organized sector of the economy. This year, the contract proposals in these three settlements are apt to serve as a pattern for other employers.
AFL-CIO officials are reluctant to label this year's early contracts as a trend. One federation official says the two-tier approach "always goes on to some extent." But he conceded that the result is to drag down the overall wage structure.
"It becomes unmanagable after a while," he said. In cases where the unions are weak, there is a tendency for all wages to gravitate to the lower level while stronger unions, over time, manage to bring all wages up to the highest level.
Other labor experts outside the federation predict the two-tier wage rate will become a pattern because its a cheap concession for the unions to make be cause it does not involve anyone who will have a chance to vote on the contract.
"It's a cheap one for the unions. It's usually the first thing they offer when you talk about concessions," says one of the nation's top labor-relations experts. "In the long run, however, it could become a bit of a problem because of the difficulty of managing two wage rates."
He also raised a question about the possibility of discrimination suits arising from the system under federal law requiring equal pay for equal work. CAPTION: Picture, Ford Motor Co. labor relations Vice President Peter Pestillo and United Auto Workers President Douglas Fraser at negotiations on Monday. Pestillo said at talks with the union yesterday that the firm will post 1981 losses of more than $1 billion and will not hesitate to use them for leverage in the negotiations. Ford is asking for union concessions. UPI