AFL-CIO President George Meany warned President Carter yesterday against imposing the wage-price guidelines his economists have recommended, amid signs that some White House political advisers are now trying to tout him off the idea.
Meany, who contends any such program would hit labor harder than business, warned that "whether these controls take the form of guidelines or whatever, once the federal government sets the figure, that figure becomes the ceiling for workers, and workers are stuck with it."
"In the past," Meany said, "workers have been called upon to sacrifice to fight inflation, and they have. But the corporations and the bankers never did their share, and there's no evidence they're ready to do so now."
Meany's remarks did not constitute a flat refusal by labor to cooperate in any new guidelines program, should Carter propose one. But they did amount to a blunt warning that the plan must demand equally stringent sacrifices by business or union leaders may balk.
Meanwhile, a key White House official told reporters yesterday that while most of Carter's economic advisers were supporting a guidelines program, many of his political aides were fearful of backfire and were urging him to soften it.
The official, who asked not to be identified, said strategists were apprehensive that the guidelines might prove unpopular with labor and other constituent groups and could spark speculation about mandatory Carter controls. "It could," he said, "be his political undoing."
The administration has been considering voluntary guidelines that would limit wage increases to about 7 percent a year and price boosts to 5.5 percent - to be "enforced" by various government sanctions designed to bring pressure on companies and unions.
Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal said yesterday that Carter's top economic advisers had sent "a list of options" to the president at Camp David last week, but that the chief executive had been too preoccupied with the Middle East negotiations to "focus" on it.
At this point, "there is no clear decision at all where the president will come down," Blumenthal said. He confirmed that voluntary guidelines were among the options Carter is considering, but declined to speculate on the outcome.
In yesterday's speech to the United Steel Workers here, Meany denounced the "controls psychology" of the administration, contending that if a guidelines program is adopted, "I can see trouble ahead for every union that goes to the bargaining table, when negotiating time comes around."
He called on the White House to address "the real causes of inflation," which he said included: the large portion of supermarket prices that goes to middlemen, high corporate profits, rising interest rates, and big dividends to stockholders.
Of prices, Meany said: "If the president gets them down to reasonable levels, then wage demands will also come down - and not before."
The labor leader's remarks yesterday had been described by AFL-CIO officials as a last attempt to influence the administration's new anti-inflation program before Carter makes a final decision on it.
Meany urged Carter not to be "persuaded by those who are beating the drums for controls to repeat our experience of 1971 to 1973," the Nixon administration's mandatory wage-price controls. Meany termed that effort "a case of loading the dice against labor."
There was no immediate indication of how Carter would react to Meany's exhortations. The president is scheduled to address this convention tomorrow, but he is not expected to disclose details of his plan.
The White House aide who spoke with reporters said that despite the reservations among Carter's political advisers, "my guess is he will probably come down on the standards" - that is, opt for voluntary wage-price guidelines.
However, he added, it will "require a lot of cunning" on the president's part "to make clear that these standards are not simply the back door to mandatory controls." He said there was "anything but a consensus" for the guidelines plan among Carter's political aides.
The administration has been in negotiations over its anti-inflation program with top labor leaders for several weeks. Last Thursday, Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall met privately with Meany.
Blumenthal said yesterday Carter still has not received specific recommendations from his top economic advisers - only "a range of options" they believe he should consider. Other officials confirmed later that economic aides still are backing the guidelines plan.
Meany told his audience here that, rather than restrain workers' wages, the most effective way the administration could slow inflation would be to "get an immediate reduction in interest rates" - particularly for mortgages.
Blumenthal conceded yesterday that if the administration doesn't win labor's cooperation "we'd all be in trouble." But, he added, "I don't think that will happen. The only way you can fight inflation is on a collaborative basis."