Although 1988 represents a major year at the bargaining table for organized labor, the biggest work place battles this year are apt to be fought in Congress.
The legislative agendas being pushed by labor include such issues as an increase in the federal minimum wage, mandatory health care for all workers, parental leave, child care, pension portability and a ban on lie detector tests in the work place.
Organized labor, which has been hit throughout the decade by declining membership, has shown signs of resurgence on the legislative front by picking issues that are attracting a broader coalition of political support.
On the bargaining front, contracts covering 3.4 million workers expire this year. This represents nearly 40 percent of the workers covered under major union contracts. The biggest negotiations, in terms of the number of employees covered, will occur in the construction, railroad and trucking industries.
Despite the large number of contracts up for renewal, there appears to be little concern about wage inflation. Wage increases in 1987 averaged a little more than 2 percent a year over the term of the contract. Increases negotiated during 1988 are not expected to be much higher.
Contract negotiations are expected to take place against a backdrop of slightly rising unemployment as the nation's economic growth continues to slow.
The forecast from most private economists calls for economic growth of about 2 percent this year with unemployment rising from its current 5.8 percent to between 6 percent and 6.2 percent.
Throughout much of the decade, union wage increases have tended to lag behind nonunion wage increases in many areas.
The pace of job creation is expected to slow in 1988. Last year the economy created about 3 million jobs. Private economists predict half as many jobs will be created in 1988.
Perhaps more important, manpower experts predict nearly half of the jobs created this year will be in the so-called contingent work force -- temporary, part-time and contract workers.
Inflation during the year is expected to be a little more than 4 percent, compared with 4.4 percent in 1987, continuing the deterioration in real earnings for most nonsalaried workers.
Salaried workers have been generally keeping up with inflation in recent years and are expected to continue to do so in 1988.
In the legislative area, labor's immediate fight will be to increase the federal minimum wage from $3.35 an hour to $4.65 an hour in the next three years.
The labor-backed proposal would then index future increases to 50 percent of the average hourly wage. Labor is expected to drop its indexing demand eventually.
The minimum wage bill is expected to move out of subcommittee in the House next month.
Areas where labor and the White House might find agreement include child care and parental leave.
With many of the so-called women's issues of the early 1980s now being labeled as family issues, there appears to be a growing, bipartisan consensus to take legislative action in this arena.
The major stumbling block is whether any eventual legislation on child care and parental leave should mandate employer actions or simply set guidelines and encourage employers through some form of tax or other financial incentive to deal with the issues.
So far, the Reagan administration opposes legislation mandating employer action.
Labor Secretary Ann McLaughlin recently set up a child care task force to see if there was a way the administration could reach agreement with labor and other groups that have formed a coalition over the day care issue.
McLaughlin is expected to oppose much of labor's legislative agenda, but observers say the administration would like to find at least one major issue that it and labor can agree upon during the upcoming presidential election campaign.
Legislation to ban the use of lie detector tests by most employers has been approved by the House and is before a Senate committee. Although the bill has drawn strong opposition from some employers, it has bipartisan support in Congress.
In the health insurance area, labor is backing legislation sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to require all employers to provide minimum health insurance coverage for employees. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House.
Many major business organizations oppose the legislation as too costly and as being a back-door attempt to enact a form of national health insurance.
Some large corporations, notably Chrysler Corp. and American Airlines, are supporting the proposal, saying it would put all businesses on an equal competitive footing.
There are an estimated 37 million people without health coverage in the United States.
The outlook for passage of a health care measure this year is uncertain, but labor and supporters of the bill hope at the very least to make the legislation part of the debate in the November presidential elections.
Because it is an election year, the proposal could gain political momentum as the campaign heats up.
Some benefits experts expect another legislative push this year for portable pension benefits. Portability would allow workers to move from one job to another with losing their pension benefits.
A proposal to provide portability was dropped late last year from the pension funding bill, but both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee have agreed to hold hearings on the issue this year.
The Reagan administration has indicated it might go along with some form of portability legislation.
Pressures for portable benefits have been growing in recent years as shifts in the economy are forcing more and more workers to change jobs and even careers several times.
Both the health insurance and pension portability issues would address some of the problems connected with the changing demographics of the work place.
These are just some of the issues affecting the work place that Congress is expected to deal with this year.