Once-proud organized labor bowed low during 1982 as its backbone--the blue-collar work force in basic industries--shriveled and its influence over wages continued to dwindle.
But hard times also produced a growing resistance among the rank and file to further concessions, even those advocated by their own leaders. That resistance could stiffen in 1983.
"I think there's a consensus developing that concessions just don't mean a damn thing," said Murray Seeger, spokesman for the AFL-CIO. "Management is going to do what they want to anyway."
In 1982, the United Auto Workers, the Teamsters and a number of other unions agreed to "give-backs"--sacrificing pay and benefit increases worth millions of dollars in an effort to preserve jobs.
Major strike activity, at the lowest level in years, was confined to a 57-day walkout by professional football players and a brief strike by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers against the rail freight industry that was halted by government intervention.
At the same time, however, the United Steelworkers of America refused to accept concessions demanded by major steel companies, setting the stage for a confrontation and possible strike next summer. As the year ended, the announcment by Bethlehem Steel Corp. that it would close its plant in Lackawanna, N.Y., sent another shock wave through the already reeling industry in which half the work force is laid off.
Although the auto workers granted concessions to General Motors and Ford, they resisted any "give-backs" to Chrysler on top of those agreed to in 1979 when the company teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Canadian Chrysler workers went on strike and won a victory of sorts in the form of an immediate pay raise, in exchange for cost-cutting measures in other areas.
Wages in 1982 barely kept pace with consumer prices, which had leveled off somewhat. From late 1981 through October 1982, average hourly earnings in the total private work force--only a quarter of which is covered by union contracts--rose 4.9 percent, the smallest gain since 1967. The Consumer Price Index rose 5 percent during the same period.
In major union agreements reached during the first nine months of 1982, workers won average first-year wage increases of only 3.8 percent, the smallest percentage increase since the government started tracking such settlements in 1968.
This year promises a heavy collective bargaining schedule affecting approximately 3.6 million workers whose contracts will expire, including aluminum, manufacturing, steel, telephone communications, East and Gulf Coast longshoremen, aerospace and a large number of construction workers.
In 1982, unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO lost about 400,000 workers, most of them in basic manufacturing jobs.
Union growth continued to be concentrated in government and service jobs. During the year, AFL-CIO officials were startled to discover that about 33 of their unions now have members who work for the federal government.
The Teamsters signed up Disney World's Mickey Mouse and other workers there. But a broad organizing drive by the AFL-CIO bogged down in the Sun Belt, and unemployment lines grew there, too, as the recession spread.
Meanwhile, labor leaders casting about for means of coping with economic change took a heightened interest in union mergers, a strategy more familiar among their management adversaries. In 1955, when the AFL (American Federation of Labor) and the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) merged, there were about 135 major affiliated unions. That figure had declined through further mergers to 98 at the end of 1982.
The giant Service Employes International Union swallowed up the little Waterbury Watchworkers Union as well as the National Association of Government Employes, the nation's largest independent employe association. Also joining the flow of independent groups into larger international and AFL-CIO unions were the state employes of Arizona, who joined AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes.)
The Hatters joined the Amalgamated Clothing workers. The International Typographical Union and the Newspaper Guild talked about merger, but thought better of it, at least for the time being. The possibility of a merger of the United Rubber Workers and United Auto Workers was reportedly under discussion. The Printing and Graphic Communications Union was considering a merger with the Graphic Arts International.
Also in 1982, as labor was forced to retreat at the bargaining table it turned increasingly to politics and legislation to resolve its problems. A major goal of the labor lobby, led by the Auto Workers, is controversial legislation to protect U.S. jobs against foreign competition.
In the fall elections, hard times helped to bring the blue-collar vote "home" to labor-supported candidates in a healthy showing.
Other major labor-related events in 1982 included:
Enactment of the Job Training and Partnership Act of 1982, supplanting CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act).
Conviction of Teamsters President Roy Lee Williams, 67, on charges of conspiring to bribe Sen. Howard Cannon (D-Nev.).
The labor federation's success in preventing Senate confirmation of a Reagan administration nominee to the chairmanship of the National Labor Relations Board, on the grounds that he is promanagement. But the fight over that post continues.
The finding by special prosecutor Leon Silverman that there was "insufficient credible evidence" on which to prosecute Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan following allegations that he had ties to organized crime figures.
Donovan has launched himself back into public activity, meeting with labor and business groups and maintaining that he plans to stay on the job.