Tomorrow, AFL-CLO President George Meany is to deliver a speech calculated to get President Carter's attention - organized labor's first major attack on the administration's unborn wage-price guidelines program.
Although Meany is expected to avoid carefully any personal rebuke of the president, his message will be simple: the guidelines had better fit labor's definition of even-handedness or union leaders will balk.
Meany's remarks, to be delivered at the United Steel Workers' convention in Atlantic City, will set the stage for what could turn out to be another knock-down, drag-out war between the White House and organized labor.
Twenty-four hours later, Carter is to address the same group - in his first speech before a union since the early days of his administration - and is expected to plead for labor's cooperation in the anti-inflation fight.
While the president probably won't disclose the details of his new program - the plan has been on ice during the Camp David summit - insiders say he will call for new sacrifices by workers as a prelude to the plan.
Reaction to the two speeches will be watched closely by key administration policymakers. The two sides already are wary of each other's intentions in the wage-price program, and distrustful of what may come.
In a last-ditch effort to stave off a full-scale confrontation, Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall flew to a Catskill Mountains retreat Thursday to meet privately with Meany. But sources said the effort produced no results.
The program the administration has been considering would ask for a limit of 7 to 7.5 per cent on wage increases and a 5.5 to 6 per cent lid on price rises, down from the present 10 percent pace for wages and 8 per cent for prices.
Top White House officials know they badly need labors cooperation to make any voluntary wage-price guidelines work. If labor believes it's being jilted in the administration's new effort, the program would be doomed.
But even before the administration's new wage-price plan is announced, there already are signs of suspicion, stemming in part from labor's fear that it isn't being consulted in the planning of the guidelines program.
Key labor officials have conferred privately with anti-inflation czar Robert S. Strauss and other policymakers over the past two weeks, but were given no inkling of what the administration was considering.
"Everyone insisted nothing had been decided, but the newspapers were full of details on the program," said one participant. "If we find out they already made up their mind and didn't tell us, we'll show them the door."
At the same time, administration officials are fearful that too strident a speech by Meany could push Carter into replying in kind Tuesday, sharply escalating the White House-labor dispute right from the start.
Meany had had AFL-CIO speechwriters working on drafts of his address for more than a week, reportedly ordering tougher and tougher versions each time. "We've about run out of adjectives," one key source here protests.
But AFL-CIO insiders say the federation chief's intentions will be simply to make Carter aware of labor's position in time to influence the guideline program the administration adopts.
"We think there's still a chance to negotiate with the White House," one strategist said, "but this is the only way we can get Carter's attention. It's just a shame we have to do it publicly."
What Meany will hammer home is that any new policy must demand "equal sacrifice" from both business and labor - a formula that some observers say may imply a far tougher price guideline ( and easier wage limit) than Carter wants.
The AFL-CIO chief is expected to stress that business profits have risen sharply in recent years - 113 percent since mid-1972, according to labor's reckoning, compared with 56.7 percent for prices - and now business should give more.
But some analysts say that unless there's a big rebound in productivity - that is, output per work-hour - the White House formula at 7-7.5 percent on wages and 5.5-6 on prices may be asking labor to accept an effective drop in living standards.The outlook isn't clear.
If labor were to reject the administration's plea for cooperation, it would kill the guidelines program. A similar breach between union leaders and the Nixon administration in 1971 forced the White House to change the shape of its mandatory controls program.
Although the Carter guidelines would effect both wages and prices, it's no secret that the main target of the plan would be to hold down wage increases. White House economists say that unless wages are slowed inflation will gain momentum.
Moreover, this time the administration is working against a critical deadline - the start of a new round of collective bargaining early next year. What happens in the next few months could affect wage patterns through 1981.
The onslaught begins with the Teamsters' contract, up far renewal in January. Then come the rubber workers, airline machinists and railroad workers. Other major industries may tie their wages to these settlements.
The consequences of losing that fight haven't been lost on the administration. Many top officials are convinced that Carter has to succeed this time around or face increasing pressures to go to mandatory controls.
Strauss and other policymakers repeatedly have mentioned the specter of controls in their talks with labor officials over the past two weeks, noting the heightened public support for restraints reflected in polls.
Carter has two factors going for him this time that could give labor some pause. First, there's strong public sentiment for slowing inflation. Second, more voters now view labor as a villain rather than as a hero.
As a United Auto Workers union official put it recently, "This time, if we turn them down, a lot of people are going to side with Carter." It's one of the risks that labor will have to take.
Meanwhile, both the White House and organized labor are looking nervously to Atlantic City this week as the first test of what may prove a necessary, albeit uncomfortable, alliance.