The United Steelworkers union made headlines this week by announcing it will see "lifetime security" for its members under the contract it is negotiating with the industry to take effect in August.
By "lifetime security" the union said it meant essentially no major interruptions of income, some means of "guaranteeing an acceptable standard of living for all our members throughout their live, irrespective of circumstances beyond their control."
That sounded almost revolutionary - a set of major employers in American being asked to provide that kind of income insurance for its employees. But the modern America labor contract is already a series of insurance policies.
In the unionized sectors of U.S. industry, millions of workers are contractually insured against loss of income or purchasing power, by virtue of inflation, through automatic cost-of-living adjustments to their pay.
In varying degrees thay also have medical and disability insurance, and more than 30 million workers have old-age insurance in the form of coverage under pension plans.
Increasingly now, unionized workers also have recession or unemployment insurance in addition to that provided by law. This takes several dustries as autos and steel.
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In steel and some other industries there also are early retirement plans and assorted programs for reducing the number of days the average worker typically works each year. These are essentially share-the-work plans and they reduce the effect of unemployment because they mean more workers share in whatever work is available.
Whether the steelworkers' union now wants to go beyond such providisions as these and guarantee each member soem minimum number of days of work - or at least of pay - each year, its leaders did not say in Monday's first bargaining session.
Some workers do have such guarantees, though they are rare.
At six of the meat-packing plants of Geo. A. Hormel & Co. no production worker can be laid off without 52 weeks' notice.
Under the company's contract with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters union, each production employee is thus guaranteed a full year's pay for the year ahead, irrespective of how much work there is to be done.
The company has given this guarantee for years in return for an important concession from the union. Meat-packing is to some extent a seasonal business, and during peak periods of the year Hormel retains the right to work production employees more than a regular eight-hour day - as many as 12 hours at a stretch in some cases - without paying overtime.
There is a similar contractual guarantee in effect for some East Coast dockworkers - a minimum number of hours of pay each year, regardless of whethere there is that much work. The dockworkers' union make various concessions in return for this.
Some railroad workers and newspaper printers have long-term or life-time job guarantees. In these areas, companies gave the guarantees in return for the right to change or abolish old jobs by introducing new technology.
There also are a few groups of workers outside the industrial sector that have "tenure." University professors have one such group and some judges are another.
Experts think many unions whose contracts come up for renewal this year are likely to follow the Steelworkers' lead and push hard for various forms of layoff insurance. This mainly because of the 1973-75 recession, the effects of which continue to be felt. Unemployment was higher in 1975 - when it reached 9 per cent - than at any time since the Depression. The unemployment rate was 7.3 per cent in January and a major issue.
Steel is one of several major industries in which there will be bargaining this year. Among the others are the coal and telephone industries. Major contracts up for renegotiation cover 4.9 million workers.
Employers will resist demands for expanded protection, which is expensive.
So-called "fringe benefits" now cost employers about 70 billion a year, or nearly one-tenth the cost of wages.