The trucking industry lashed back at the Carter administration yesterday for what it called a "totally irresponsible" threat to deregulate trucking if the Teamsters win wage gains in excess of anti-inflation guidelines.
The dispute over deregulation emerged as yet another source of friction in what has come to be a three-way battle among Teamsters, truckers and the government over a new labor contract that could make or break the administration's voluntary guidelines program.
In a major escalation of its pressure on the bargainers to settle within the guidelines, Council on Wage and Price Stability Chairman Alfred E. Kahn told reporters Thursday that the administration would speed up or slow down its push for trucking deregulation depending on the size of the Teamsters' contract.
In a strongly worded response yesterday, Bennett C. Whitlock Jr., president of the American Trucking Association, said contract bargaining should be "separate and distinct" from deregulation, which would affect nonunion as well as union companies and workers.
"It is totally irresponsible to use the issue of trucking industry deregulation to influence the outcome of the present industry-Teamsters negotiations.... By using regulation as a political football, Alfred Kahn has placed President Carter in an extreme position as he attempts to serve the best interests of the American people in combating inflation," Whitlock said.
There was no immediate response from the Teamsters union, which joins the industry in opposition to any erosion of longstanding regulatory protections against competition in prices and service, which shield carriers from marketplace risks and the union from loss of jobs and collective bargaining clout. However, one union official said, "I think Whitlock said it very eloquently."
What impact, if any, Kahn's warning will have on the negotiations is unclear. They resume Monday at an Arlington motel after a morning meeting in Washington of representatives from more than 300 Teamster trucking locals for a briefing on the progress, or more precisely, the lack of it, in the talks so far.
Some industry and government officials have expressed concern that the tone may be so negative that work slowdowns may occur before the contract expires March 31. Two government sources indicated that contingency planning is beginning for a possible strike in April.
Although government inflation advisers have urged companies to be prepared to take strikes if necessary to keep settlements within the guidelines, President Carter has said a trucking strike would be so damaging to the economy that he would intervene promptly to stop it by legal or legislative action.
The trucking negotiations have all but stalled since March 6, when the Teamsters, angry at the government's hard-line position on the guidelines, dropped their first money demand on the table. The government figures its first-year cost would be 13 to 15 percent above existing costs, twice the 7 percent guideline for annual wage and benefit increases. Some industry officials have estimated the cost to be considerably higher.
With two weeks to go, there is no sign of give on any side, including the government, according to several sources. White rigidity normally yields to flexibility as strike deadlines near, some suggested that more bad news on the economic front, including the latest consumer price and corporate profit reports, may serve to harden positions as the deadline approaches.