As the nation moves into the most intensive phase of 1977's heavy collective bargaining calendar with this week's steel industry showdown, the outlook is for moderate wage increases, few strikes and a growing emphasis on job security - almost a mirror image of 1976.
This is the consensus of a number of government, business and labor officials who, in their forecast of another year of restrained wage gains, see little if any change in the inflationary impact of money agreements this year.
"The outlook is not consistent with stable prices but it is consistent with stability in the rate of increase," presaging wage increases averaging about 8 per cent and an inflation rate of 5 to 6 per cent, said Arnold H. Packer, a former congressional economist who is now assistant secretary of labor for policy, evaluation and research.
By most government indices, wages have generally lagged marginally behind prices in recent years. They are not expected to "burst out" this year but rather to continue as an "inflation-sustaining force," said Jack A. Meyer of the President's Council on Wage and Price Stability, co-author of a recent report analyzing prospects for 1977 collective bargaining in construction, steel, communications, coal railroads and retail food.
These industries employ more than half the 4.9 million workers who are covered by union contracts that will be renegotiated this year, starting with construction and steel workers this spring and ending with coal and rails in December.
With the exception of retail food employees, they are among the highest paid union workers and, aside from the depressed construction industry, their hourly wage increases have more than kept pace with increases in consumer prices according to government figuures.
While the 4.9 million constitute a somewhat atypical minority of the 20 million unionized workers in the total work force of more than 90 million, their settlements are nonetheless looked to as a barometer of wages as a whole.
Contracts negotiated last year for 4.4 million workers - mainly in the auto, constcution, trucking, apparel, electrical equipment and rubber industries - produced wage increases slightly lower than the preceding year's.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for bargaining agreements covering 1,000 or more workers, negotiated first-year wage gains averaged 8.4 per cent in 1976, compared with 10.2 per cent in 1975.
But these figures do not tell the entire story. The Council on Wage and Price Stability fund that cost-of-living adjustments played a major and increasing role in 1976 settlements, and that more money was put into fringe benefits. All of this tended to increase total compensation.
Moreover, with inflation abating, real hourly earnings - reflecting the buying power of a paycheck - increased in 1976 after decreasing in the two previous years, the council report noted.
"The importance of the link between wage and price increases cannot be ignored," the report said. "Further progress on the wage front will be facilitated by further progress in moderating inflation, and such progress with wages will, in turn, foster a continued dampening of increase in the cost of living."
Along this same line, wage increases described now as "moderate" may turn out to be immoderate if inflation soars and boosts compensation via cost-of-living escalators, which adjust negotiated wages upward as prices rise.
The potential impact of this is illustrated by the rising proportion of workers in major bargaining units who are covered by cost-of-living clauses. The figure is 60 per cent - living adjustments accounted for 25 more than double since 1970. Cost of per cent of all wage increase last year, as against 7 per cent in 1970, according to the council.
In the inly major industry where some negotiations have already been completed this year, construction workers' wage increases have averaged about 6 per cent, according to Victor Kamber of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department.
But they involved only about 10,000 of 828,000 workers where wages will be renegotiated this year and are too spotty for any conclusions to be drawn, Kamber said.The big bargaining months for construction are April, May and June, he added.
Among public employees, wage increases are lower than usual, "partly for legitimate economic reasons and to screw public employees," said a unpartly because it's become fashionable official. For state, county and municipal employees, the official said wage increases are ranging from 3 to 7 or 1 per cent, compared with previous gains of 5 to 12 per cent.
While some unions such as the construction trades will be concentrating on catch-up wage increases, the United Steelworkers Union - which is in the final stretch of industrywide bargaining here in Washington - has singled out lifetime job security as its prime bargaining goal for roughly 340,000 workers in basic steel.
It is a trend among the union pacesetters, prompted by chronic unemployment and inflation. Last year the United Auto Workers negotiated a contract for extra days off to spread work among more members. And the Communications Workers, in negotiations affecting 735,000 telephone communications and electrical workers, is pursuing a similar goal this spring and summer.
According to the council report, negotiations for 456,000 railroad workers later this year will focus on job security and work rules.
Job security as well as wages will be emphasized in year-round negotiations for about 400,000 workers in the highly decentralized retail food industry, which is undergoing increasing automation, the council said.
For the 125,000 unionized coal miners, whose negotiations are complicated by a bitter leadership fight withing the United Mine Workers, the key issue will be procedures for resolving grievances, according to the report.
"A strike over this issue is possible" and a "cause for concern" for the economy, although the impact will probably be cushioned by stockpiling in advance of any walkout, as occured in 1974, the report said.
Other sources said the strike picture for 1977 is otherwise good, although there is some concern about the possibility of local strikes in the steel industry.
The steel industry has a non-strike guarantee but it affects only industrywide issues such as wages. The Steelworkers are insisting this year that issues such as incentive pay for extra work and contracting-out of work that could be done by union members be treated locally, to be negotiated plant by plant without a no-strike guarantee. "There will probably be more strike votes this year," said a union spokesman, "but whether there will be strikes is an open question."