Teamsters President Frank E. Fitzsimmons criticized the administration's newly relaxed wage guidelines yesterday as he opened trucking contract negotiations that are viewed as crucial to the fate of President Carter's voluntary anti-inflation program.
The largely ceremonial opening of the talks came as labor-management experts for the Conference Board, a New York-based business research group, predicted the administration's program would soon collapse under the weight of guideline-busting wage increases.*tThe group forecast that contracts negotiated next year will yield wage and benefit increases averaging 11 percent-almost half again as much as the 7 percent target set by the administration. Major contract settlements so far this year are averaging increases of about 9 percent, according to government figures.
The panel of nine business, labor and academic represantatives concluded the volantary program was "unlikely to be effective," according to a 28-page report the board issued yesterday. Half the panel members predicted that eventually mandatory controls would be required.
For the trucking industry, the panel predicted a wage-benefit increase of 12 to 15 percent next year, and most members indicated a strike was a strong possibility.
At the trucking talks, neither side said whether the new three-year contract the Teamsters are negotiating will wind up within the recently modified 7 percent wage-benefit guideline, as administration officials have predicted.
"Who knows?" shrugged Fitzsimmons, sporting a big smile and a double American flag pin in his lapel as several hundred union and industry officials gathered in one of the city's largest hotel ballrooms for the opening rites.
But the hinted broadly that he wants more than the administration's agreement this week to discount most if not all of the costs of maintaining existing health and pension benefits. The concession is aimed largely at winning the cooperation of the Teamsters, who face huge pension funding problems.
"The preliminary reports on the revised standards do not appear to make sufficient adjustments in this area," Fitzsimmons said in a press release. "These standards, if not adjusted, leave very little for real wage increases which our members need to cope with ever-increasing prices and taxes."
The abbreviated contract proposals exchanged yesterday did not include money offers or demands, which will be put on the table as the talks move closer to the March 31 expiration date of the current contract. The talks are now in recess until Jan. 23.
Fitzsimmons listed several "considerations" for the union's money proposals, including the "success of the Carter program in holding down prices and excessive government spending" and the "Carter commitment to enforce price standards in the industry."
J. Curtis Counts, the trucking industry's chief bargainer, said the companies are "mindful of the spotlight that the government has focused on these negotiations" but echoed Fitzsimmons in saying he didn't know whether the guidelines could be met.
Although the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, representing 45,000 oil company workers, will beat the Teamsters to the bargaining table with contracts expiring Jan. 7, the Teamsters are expected to be the pattern-setter for the year. The "master freight agreement" covers 300,000 of its more than 2 million members, reflecting an industry that custs a broad swath through both country and economy.
Drivers won an annual wage and benefit increase of more than 10 percent in the current contract, yielding average pay of about $20,000 a year. Benefit improvements are expected to be the main issue this year.
Nonunion competition and threatened government deregulation of the trucking industry combine to contain cost increases and diminish the chances of a strike, but Fitzsimmons faces pressures from within the union that could force him to take a hard line at the bargaining table.
He has already made a point of noting the wage increase of 37 per cent over three years that the United Mine Workers won earlier this year, and a high settlement by the oil workers could make it politically hard for him to agree to less.
Although presidential inflation adviser Alfred E. Kahn said Wednesday that the wage guideline revision would permit a 7.3 percent Teamster settlement, other sources have said the limit is more like 9 percent under the goverment's new guideline definitions.
Commenting on the Teamster outlook, Conference Board economist Audrey Freedman said the trucking settlement will probably fall technically within the 7 percent guideline, although its actual cost will be substantially higher. She said the panel's assessments are based on real costs, not adjustments to match guideline definitions.
One of the panelists, Arnold Weber, provost of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said he believes the fate of the guidelines will be settled with trucking and rubber contracts in early spring. If these contracts don't approximate the guidelines, he said, the chances of containing auto and steel costs late next year and early in 1980 are "virtually nil."
The panelists also warned that largely overlooked bargaining in the food industry could have an immediate effect on shelf prices and that a trucking strike could trigger shortageinduced price hikes that would aggravate inflation indirectly through boosting cost-of-living adjustments in workers' pay.
In related developments:
Council on Wage and Price Stability Director Barry Bosworth reiterated his warning that "this is the last of the voluntary programs," asserting that the country will have to choose between controls and recession if it fails.
The government asked a U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore., to dismiss a suit by local paperworkers challenging the anti-inilation guidelines as controls in disguise. A hearing will be held today, and a spokesman said Attorney General Griffin B. Bell considers the case so important that he may argue the case himself if it reaches an appeals court.