The Carter administration, hoping to salvage its voluntary anti-inflation program and avoid a trucking strike next week, is considering significant wage and price concessions to the Teamsters union and the trucking industry.
Under heavy pressure from both sides as Saturday night's bargaining deadline nears, anti-inflation officials are reconsidering earlier guideline interpretations that have been major stumbling blocks in the Teamster-truckers contract negotiations.
In bargaining yesterday that stretched late into the night, Teamster and industry negotiators exchanged a new round of money proposals-each rejecting the other's package and finally adjourning to resume at the call of the federal mediator.
"We ended with complete disagreement on the economic proposals," said J. Curtis Counts, the industry's chief negotiator, who attributed the lack of progress at least in part to what he called "very inept" handling of the negotiations by the administrations.
Top administration officials also met last night on the guidelines issue, but refused to discuss the outcome.
By sticking by stringent interpretations of its wage and price standards, the administration has been running the risk of a crippling truckng strike or a guideline-busting settlement that could doom the voluntary program. But any substantial erosion of the guidelines will open the administration to charges of retreat in the face of impending defeat.
For these and other reasons, the administration has denied until now that any guideline-stretching was contemplated to accommodate trucking union and industry demands. Officials confirmed yesterday that at least two concessions are under study.
One involves rate increases that trucking companies are seeking from the Interstate Commerce Commission, ranging from 5.4 to 7.5 percent, to cover the cost of eventual Teamster wage and bendfit improvements.
The government's Council on Wage and Price Stability objected last week to six of 10 proposed regional rate increases, but sources confirmed yesterday that council officials agreed Tuesday, in a meeting with industry officials, to consider modifying their earlier objections.
The other move involves an inflations "catch-up" wage increase of 58 cents an hour that the union expects to get immediately from the new contract to cover cost-of-living increases over the past 12 months.
The Teamsters contend this is essentially "old money," not chargeable against the wage guideline, but the council has rejected the union's arguments, insisting that the 58 cents is "new money" and thus countable.
The guideline for wage and benefit increases calls for no more than 7 percent annually over the life of a union contract. According to government calculations, the Teamsters are proposing about 35 percent over three years, including 14 percent the first year. Nearly half the 14 percent is attributable, however, to the 58 cents-leaving the union virtually in compliance for the first year if that money isn't counted.
Sources said yesterday that no decisions have been made on either proposed modification. Several indicated that a compromise on the 58 cents was more likely than a discounting of the entire amount.
Whether this would be enough to move the two sides toward a settlement before the Saturday midnight deadline of the current contract was unclear, but an industry official indicated that some give by the government is essential.
"Clearly, someone has to provide a little turning-around room," the official said as the negotiations resumed yesterday at an Arlington motel. "The employers can't do it, the union can't od it-the government's the only one."
The industry wants to be able to pass through the costs of the Teamster settlement by charging higher rates to users. Under anti-inflation signals from the White House, the Interstate Commerce Commission has indicated that it may reject rates reflecting costs in excess of the guidelins, and CWPS anti-inflation fighters have urged that some of the anticipated Teamster labor cost increases be absorbed by the trucking companies. The council suggested deferring the contested increases pending further study.
The roughly 350 Teamster trucking locals, representing 300,000 truck drivers and warehouse workers, have authorizied a strike starting Sunday. The union's bargaining high command is scheduled to decide Friday whether to call a strike, and, if one is called, what form it will take.
The union has several options, including a nationwide shutdown that would almost certainly be countered by a Taft-Hartley back-to-work order, a series of selective strikes or a contract extension while bargaining continued.
Speculation has centered on the likelihood of selective strikes. An industry lockout would then be possibile, but it, too, is considered likely to provoke a Taft-Hartley injunction.
In briefing reporters after the 14-hour negotiating session yesterday, Counts said that, while the two sides are "substantially apart," they had not reached an impasse and still had time to reach an agreement before Saturday's deadline. "There's still plenty of time," said Counts adding that there is "no bitterness" between the parties.
Counts indicated that both sides are angry with the government, however. By targeting the Teamster talks early in the anti-inflation fight, the administration made the negotiations a "tremendously difficult task," Counts said. "The administration has not helped the negotiations one lota."
Counts declined to described the industry's latest offer in guideline percentage terms, but said both the industry and union offers represented "modifications" of their earlier offers. In the first round of proposals, the union's demand was more than double the administration's 7 percent wage guideline, while the industry characterized its offer as "well within" the guideline.
In discussing the two sides: differences, Counts said the industry was concerned not only about the economic proposals, but also noneconomic problems which "in our judgement impede the ability of the industry to compete in the marketplace," including issues related to subcontracting of work and owner-operated vehicles.
He also said that unlimited cost-of-living increases, under current inflation rates, would produce actual costs well in excess of the 7 percent guideline and take "megabucks" to finance.