With the adminstration's wage guidelines hanging in the balance, negotiators for the Teamsters and the trucking industry were still talking about everything but money yesterday as they shifted their slow-moving contract talks to a Florida resort.
Only sporadic meetings have been held since bargaining began with a flourish two months ago in the ballroom of a Washington hotel, and it is expected to be another week or more before the bargainers start exchanging proposals on wages and benefits.
Thus it may be nearly March 31, the deadline for expiration of the current master freight contract covering 300,000 truck drivers, before it is known whether the administration's anti-inflation guidelines have survived their key test at the bargaining table.
The guidelines set a ceiling of 7 percent for yearly wage and benefit increases but were modified, with the Teamsters in mind, to exclude the costs of maintaining existing pension levels and some medical benefits. There also are allowances for higher productivity achieved through work rules changes, which the industry is seeking.
Many observers believe there may be enough elasticity in the guidelines to accommodate an eventual settlement, although presistent inflation reinforces internal union pressures for more money.
The union has been in no hurry to negotiate money issues, largely to see what happened to the inflation rate and the administration's plan for coping with it. However, in the last few months it has negotiated a number of other contracts covering a variety of workers, including some truck drivers, settling mostly within the guidelines.
At yesterday's talks, Roy Williams, bargaining co-chairman for the Teamsters, said rising inflation -- now about 12 percent on an annualized basis -- will make it harder to meet the administration's goal. But he did not rule out a settlement within the guidelines and expressed confidence that a strike can be voided.