AFL-CIO President George Meany believes that President Carter's expected voluntary wage-price guidelines program is doomed to failure, and is suggesting that a full, mandatory controls program would be preferable.
The 84-year-old labor leader, basically opposed to any interference with the collective bargaining process, believes that the forthcoming wage guideline will be enforced on wages by employers, but that there will be no meaningful control on prices.
Carter's plan reportedly sets a national 7 percent wage standard, plus 1 percent for other labor costs in 1976, with a price standard of 5 3/4 percent.
In conferences with administration officials drawing up the Carter program, Meany has asserted that the guideline program will depress wages, reduce purchasing power and lead the country into a serious recession.
For that reason, Meany has told Carter's team that if the president is willing to go to guidelines - which he had previously rejected - he might as well "go all the way" to full controls.
His reasoning is that if the controls system is supported by legislation, the AFL-CIO would have a role in influencing the system. Specifically, he is understood to feel that labor would have a better chance of avoiding "inequities," and that Congress would set up certain standards - and a Wage Board - that would help protect labor.
The AFL-CIO preference for controls as a "least worse" alternative was hinted by AFL-CIO Secretary. Treasurer Lane Kirkland in dealings with Carter's people a few weeks ago, but never until now made public or explicit.
A high-ranking Carter administration official told The Washington Post that the White House response to Meany will be negative. "The position here is no controls - period," he said.
But he acknowledged that the inflation-limiting process is "a gradually evolving one, and while the president's [voluntary] program is right for now, there can be legislative suggestions in January."
Such legislative changes in the guidelines approach would not necessarily be in the nature of a mandatory program, this official said. He listed as possibilities for consideration a reduction in Social Security taxes, regulatory relief for business, some adjustment in the minimum wage structure, and even some consideration of the tax "carrot and stick" approach.
The latter is a reference to the so-called "tax-based incentive plans" (TIP) which would reward or penalize companies and unions according to their adherence to voluntary wage or price standards.
Labor leaders acknowledge that the American public is fed up with inflation, and will applaud President Carter's guidelines program. "They'll give him credit for trying to do something, even if it doesn't work," one said. This creates a problem for them, labor leaders say.
"If we don't accept voluntary guidelines," one union boss said, "the public will blame us if there is a new round of double-digit inflation next year."
Somewhat bitterly, union men charge that the principal authors of the president's guidelines program concede that it won't work but that they are forced by circumstances "to come up with something."
Administration officials concede privately that this is at least partly true, because the guidelines cannot deal with many inflationary elements in the economy, and because the sanctions will be limited, in the absence of legislation.
Present plans call for price-monitoring of only the 100 or so largest U.S. corporations by the existing Council on Wage and Price Stability. The CWPS professional staff would be increased from 20 to 100.
Labor leaders complain that there is little that most of them can do to persuade union members to accept a voluntary wage standard. "Suppose there is a 7 percent standard," asks one leader, "can you see the Teamsters accepting it?"
The Teamsters, steel workers, auto workers, rubber and other large unions will be involved in contract renegotiations next year. It is the fear that this round will run up to 10 percent or more that has helped precipitate the new anti-inflation drive by the White House.
Meany plans to convene a meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council to consider Carter's program as soon as it is announced, probably around the middle of next week.
Meanwhile, he is studying a number of alternative responses, most of which would reluctantly accept the president's program, if certain changes sponsored by the AFL-CIO are accepted.
Among these would be a tighter system of monitoring prices, inclusion of a way in which labor could be heard on wage questions, and a system of selective credit controls by the Federal Reserve System to allow lower interest rates for housing and industrial development.
Meany would also like to see wage-earners making $15,000 a year or less exempted from the guidelines. At the moment, the administration is considering - but hasn't settled on - a $10,000 cutoff.