There was a time, not long ago, when Presidents collected strike settlements like so many campaign trophies.
Lyndon Johnson, the champion collector of bargaining baubles used to lock recalcitrant negotiating teams in the Executive Office Building until they coughed up a settlement, which he would then convey to the world via live television from the White House.
"We got to the point where no self-respecting local union would settle a strike without involving the White House or at least the Secretary of Labor," said a veteran Labor Department aide who used to travel with his bosses on the strike-settling circuit, sometimes moving from strike to strike without even changing hotels.
But no more.
Since the Johnson days of presidential "High Noon" drama at the bargaining table, top-echelon Washington intervention in labor-management disputes has been on the wane, although Cabinet-level dabbling continued on occasion during the Nixon and Ford administrations.
Now, in the Carter administration, there is a declared hands-off policy with the government reputedly confining its effots to professional mediation and to what Labor Secretary Ray Marshall calls "creating a climate" for more effective independent operation of the collective bargaining process.
He has defined this a broad terms to include seeking improvements in bargaining procedures, providing information and analysis and clearing away governmental bureaucratic underbrush that may impede resolution of issues - almost anything short of direct intervention, which he describes as counter-productive and harmful to the bargaining proces.
Both the durability and effectiveness of this policy are being tested in the Atlandtic and Gulf Coast container shipping strike that has idled 50,000 dock workers in 30 ports from Maine to Texas since it began Oct. 1.
An even more severe most is looming in bargaining to avert a nationwide coal strike in December Marshall, while playing the role of a low-key troubleshooter, has said he plans no direct intervention.
In the dock strike, the International Longshoremen's Association, whose ranks have shrunk as cranes and containers replaced wood crates and human muscle on the waterfront, is demanding new income and benefit guarantees to replace old ones that have been invalidated by the government.
Although some shippers' operations have been crippled, little if any disruption to the national economy has been reported, and the government, aside from a little hint-dropping about its injunctive powers, has made no direct move to halt the strike.
Through the 1960s, pickets on the waterfront almost automatically triggered government action to get an injunction under the Taft-Hartley Act to stop a strike for 80 days.
This strike is different in that it has been aimed thus far solely at container operations, except for a wildcat general shutdown in New Orleans that was brought under control after a few days. Previous strikes involved all cargo.
ILA President Thomas W. (Teddy) Gleason reportedly fashioned the containers-only strategy in part to keep the government off his back.
At the same time, there was the implied threat that a total dock shutdown from Maine to Texas might force the government's hand and compel it, for political if not economic reasons, to seek an injunction. This had the effect of containing the strike and strengthening Gleason's leverage over insurgents who would shut down everything.
But containers - the van-sized steel boxes that have revolutionized cargo-handling and eliminated thousands of dock jobs - account for 65 per cent of all export-import liner cargo, according to the Federal Maritime Commission.
Hence, some officials note that a case might be made for imminent danger to the economy, especially in light of the courts' historic tolerance for skimpy government proof in such cases.
A more important reason, they suggest, is the conviction of Labor Secretary Marshall, which President Carter thus far supports, that injunctions or other forms of government compulsion in bargaining situations can have the effect of hardening and prolonging labor-management disputes.
"If we step in with an injunction and smother a problem," Marshall told reporters recently in discussing the dock situation, "it will pop right back out again when we take the injunction off."
Similarly, he said, "if you constantly appear to be inclined to intervene, then almost invariably one side or the other will make the calculation that they can get more from you than they can from barganing." At that point, he added, bargaining breaks down.
Marshall said he would "not hesitate to use a Taft-Hartley injunction" in a national emergency but made it clear he would have to be convinced it "really is a serious problem" that cannot be resolved through bargaining.
Marshall's hands-off policy has elevated the role of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, whose director, Wayne L. Horvitz, has been personally mediating the docks strike and called the ILA and employers' representatives together Friday in Bal Harbour, Fla., for their first meetings under one roof since the strike began.
In calling the meeting, Horvitz, describing his role as something of a catalytic agent, said, "If there were positive responses, at least we'd have all the people in one place to determine whether we could talk." As it turned out, they did talk for three days but then reached an impasse yesterday and Horvitz recessed the negotiations.
This is a far cry from 1966 when Lyndon Johnson, in the midst of a protracted airlines strike, summoned opposing parties to the White House, prodded them toward a settlement and proclaimed it over television - only to have the agreement spurned three days later by the strikers.