Organized labor, reacting sharply to reports that industry profits are soaring, warned yesterday that workers will reject President Carter's wage guidelines if the White House does not move quickly to limit prices and earnings.
In an acid-tinged statement, AFLCIO President George Meany blasted the fourth-quarter profit figures as "the grossest demonstration of profitgouging since the opening days of the Korean War."
Meany said unless there are "effective and enforceable controls on prices and profits, workers cannot be expected to seek wage increases that do not catch up with lost buying power and maintain their families' standard of living."
The escalation of labor's cold war on the guidelines issue came as the White House attempted to steer a middle course on the profits question.
At a briefing for reporters, Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell, said the president was dismayed by the figures Tuesday but would not try to determine "an exact proper level for profits."
On Tuesday, presidential assistant Hamilton Jordan had told a National Press Club audience that profits were "unnecessarily high" and vowed the White House would "take steps to deal with this."
Yesterday, key economic officials were more muted over the profits issue. Several strategists confirmed that Carter had agreed generally to become "more visible" in the inflation fight but had not decided how to do it.
Anti-inflation chief Alfred E. Kahn and other aides have urged Carter to "jawbone" more frequently by calling business and labor leaders to the White House to lecture them generally about wage and price increases.
However, some officials indicated yesterday it was unlikely the chief executive would become involved as a mediator in individual price hike or contract actions. "It would be asking for trouble," one insider said.
The developments came as, separately, the administration received news of movement in two important labor negotiations -- the Teamsters union talks now under way and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union bargaining.
Sol C, Chaikin, ILGWU president, indicated that while his union would seek a "substantial" wage boost in its current talks, the contract most likely would come in under the administration's 7 percent wage guideline.
And the trucking industry submitted a contract proposal that insiders said is within the administration's guideline.
Meanwhile, the Commerce Department reported a modest bit of good news -- that the U.S. current account deficit narrowed last quarter, resuming the gradual improvement that was interrupted last fall (Details on page D10).
And, in another report, the department said new orders for durable goods rose only 0.3 percent in February, providing another bit of early evidence that the economy finally may be beginning to slow down.
Analysts both in and out of government have been fretting recently that the economy is overheating -- a condition in which excess demand intensifies inflationary pressures. The profits surge was in part linked to this.
The Commerce Department reported Tuesday that corporate profits rose a hefty 9.7 percent in the final three months of 1978 -- an annual rate of 44.8 percent. The rise brought profits to a level of 26.4 percent above the same period a year before.
Carter's apparent decision to become "more visible" in the anti-inflation fight reflects concern by his top advisers that voters may be perceiving him as too wrapped up in foreign affairs at the expense of domestic concerns.
Recent political polls have shown many voters believe Carter's Middle East peace efforts have taken up too much of his time and want him to devote more of his attention to the antiinflating fight.
Among the moves suggested by Kahn and other advisers are that the president summon corporate chieftains to the White House and chide them about large profit increases and meet with both sides in advance of key wage talks.
One source said Jordan's reaction may have been influenced by sharp criticism of the administration's stance on profits by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a possible challenger to Carter.