Postal workers, Teamsters and environmental regulators are the first three targets chosen by Robert S. Strauss for the opening salvo of his campaign to show the Carter administration is serious about cutting down inflation.
Strauss, named last week by President Carter as his special counsel on inflation, singled out those three areas for attention in an informal interview on plans for his new agreement. The interview followed a close door meeting with steel company executives and a fund-raising appearance here Tuesday for freshman Rep. Doug Walgren (D-Pa.).
"We need to win a couple of fights," said the former Democratic national chairman who will keep his second job as Carter's ambassador on foreign trade problem. His comments implied that the postal workers, Teamsters and environmental regulators would be politically attractive targets for the White House to challenge in the name of curbing inflation.
[Airline deregulation, one of Carter's first goals in the battle against inflation, was passed last night by the Senate. Details on Page D13.]
Negotiations on a new contract for the 560,000 postal workers begin today, and United Press International quoted American Postal Workers Union President Emmett Andrews as saying, "We anticipate an appearance of President Carter hovering over the [bargaining] table."
The major Teamster contracts do not expire unitl next March, but Teamster President Frank Fitzsimmons has said he hopes to match or exceed the increase of 37 percent over three years won by the United Mine Workers last month.
Without setting specific ceilings, Strauss indicated that the administration would fight any effort to make the mine workers' agreement the pattern for future settlements. Union wage increases in the last 12 months averaged 8.1 percent annually, and Strauss said he wants to "chip away" at the level of both price and wage increases.
He was instrumental in the administration "jawboning" that persuaded steel companies to cut back their price rises from $10.50 to $5.50 a ton after the new coal contract went into effect. He indicated he would not be reluctant to "jawbone" again with both business and labor.
But echoing Carter's own statements, Strauss said the government must set the pattern for "sacrifice" by curbing its own inflationary actions.
He said he had met already with Douglas Costle, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and asked him "when they were going to make a contribution to the inflation fight."
Without being specific, Strauss said he was sure there were some regulations and enforcement policies that added significantly to the costs of production but did not achieve major environmental benefits.
He said he had asked Costle to come up with his own suggestions for possible regulatory changes, but he also made it plain that he was prepared to seek presidential intervention if the EPA is not responsive.
Easing environmental and other regulatory costs, he said, would make it easier for the administration to persuade business leaders to restrain their price increases.
The carrot-and-stick approach, which has characterized Strauss' bargaining with the Japanese and others on trade matters, apparently will be his approach to the new job as an inflation-fighter as well.
He said, for example, that he was hopeful of cooperation from AFL-CLO President George Meany, but was not displeased by reports from labor circles that Meany feared Strauss was skillful enough politically to sell Carter and Congress on the need for direct wage and price controls if he voluntary approach fails.
Strauss declared vehemently that "under no circumstances do I want such controls, absolutely not." But at the same time, he suggested that Meany's apprehensions might make the labor leader more cooperative on the voluntary restraint policies the administration is now pursuing.
"I would think," Strauss siad, "that he would be willing to bet on my success for the next 12 months." And he indicated a similar olive branch would be extended to Fitzsimmons, if the chief of the largest independent union proved cooperative. "He's desperate for respectability," Strauss said of Fitzsimmons, "and I'm not too proud to give him some if he helps me."
Inflation counselor said he planned to hire on large staff of his own, but would use the economic analysis team of the Council on Wages and Price Stability. He praised Barry Bostworth, the head of that council, and said they had found already that Bosworth's economic skills and his own political talents complimented each other.