Eight major construction unions, plagued by loss of jobs to cost-cutting non-union employers, signed an agreement yesterday to reduce strikes and featherbedding work rules on big industrial projects in the South.

It was the second such labor-management pact in little more than a month, following an agreement to cut costs and speed work in nuclear power plant construction.

In presiding over the signing ceremony between the unions and the National Constructors Association, which represents large unionized construction firms, Labor Secretary Ray Marshall estimated that the agreement would cut costs on affected projects 9 to 14 per cent.

"This agreement can lead to a growing recognition in other sectors of the economy that private cooperation and private initiatives, rather than the actions of government working alone, are the real keys to reducing inflation," said Marshall.

Although described by Marshall as primarily anti-inflationary, the pact a year as a tool for improving the competitiveness of the shrinking unionized sector of the construction industry.

The agreement will go into effect on projects started after July 1 in 11 southern states, where heavy construction is booming and non-union-competition is particularly intense. Both sides said they want to see it spread nationwide.

"These are the states where the work and the competiton is," said Robert A. Georgine, president of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department. "We'll start here and see how it works."

The agreement rules out stikes or lockouts except after an impasse in localized collective bargaining; provides for an orderly grievance-settling process that may include arbitration standardize overtime rates and shift rules, and establishes what it calls "common sense" work rules aimed at more efficient use of manpower and machines.

The initial coverage includes Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas and all of Virginia outside the Washington area, where other agreements prevail.

Participating unions include the asbestos workers, boilermakers, carpenters, operating engineers, iron workers, laborers, cement masons and pipefitters. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is involved in litigation with the NCA and did not sign, according to Georgine.