The Teamsters union called selective strikes against the trucking industry at midnight last night after an uncexpected collapse in negotiations over a new three-year contract.
In a statement read to reporters by an aide shortly after midnight, Teamsters President Frank Fitzsimmons blamed the walkout in part on "interference by high-level government bureaucrats," an apparent reference to the Carter administration's pressure to get his union to settle within its anti-inflation guidelines.
It was not immediately known which cities or trucking companies would be hit by the selective walkouts. Nor was it known whether the trucking industry would counter with a lockout.
Fitzsimmons said the selective strikes would begin immediately, but industry officials said previously that only about 15 to 20 percent of the men normally work on Sundays. Thus, any substantial impact would not be felt until Monday at the earliest.
Chief federal mediator Wayne L. Horvitz said the two sides came "awfully close" to settling on a new contract.
"I don't think the differences even now are that great," he said, adding that the two sides have agreed to stay in touch with him but were unlikely to resume any direct negotiations until Monday at the earliest.
But, even at that, industry services are so interdependent that a Teamster strike, evan a selective one aimed at major population and industrial centers, can have an immediate and pervasive impact.
President Carter warned several months ago that he would act swiftly to block a nationwide trucking strike because of the potentially devastating impact an industrywide shut-down could have on the economy and the flow of critical consumer and industrial goods.
There was no immediate comment from the White House.
It was apparent Fitzsimmons avoided calling a national strike to get around a Taft-Hartley injunction, which it is believed the government would seek against the union's 300,000 truck drivers and warehouse workers.
Fitzsimmons, in his statement read by union spokesman Bernard Henderson, said he has instructed union locals not to interfere with transportation of defense materials or medical supplies.
The first news of the strike came from chief industry negotiator J. Curtis Counts. He met reporters at an Arlington hotel after the talks collapsed, despite continuous and intensive efforts by federal mediators to resolve a long list of economic and noneconomic issues.
Counts said the industry agreed to a wage and benefit package including increases of about 30 percent over three years, which he said conformed to President Carter's guidelines. But he said it was "not enough to satisfy the union."
The pay guidelines call for increases of no more than 7 percent a year in wages and benefits. But they contain several sizable exclusions that would permit the Teamsters actual increase of up to about 9 percent a year.
The Carter administration had made the Teamster talks a major test of its voluntary anti-inflation program. And it was unclear whether the industry's willingness to take a strike in order to hold out against what is regarded as excessive union demands would be seen as a victory or defeat for the anti-inflation program.
Fitzsimmons, in his statement, said the Teamsters-the nation's largest union, with more than 2 million members in a variety of occupations-felt "bermirchedc by presidential inflation adviser Alfred E. Kahn's accusation that the union would be committing an "act of aggression against the American people" by pursuing its wage demands.
He also accused the Council on Wage and Price Stability and Interstate Commerce Commission of "making a mockery of collective bargaining" by trying to keep trucking employers from meeting the union's wage proposals.
As of Friday, when sources close to the talks reported that an agreement was near, the money package was said to have included a wage increase of $1.50 an hour over three years on top of the current wage base of nearly $10 an hour, one of the highest level for American workers.
The union was reported to have won is demand for a $30-per-week increase in pension and medical benefits, but dropped a proposal for fattening its cost-of-living formula.
One of the principal issues said to be unresolved in 14 hours of bargaining yesterday was the union's demand for semiannual rather than annual payment of cost-of-living increases, which would have given members six months extra compensation during he life of the contract.
Industry sources said at least a dozen other issues, largely noneconomic ones, were also unresolved on the last day.
Both Counts and Fitzsimmons said they regretted the breakdown, with Fitzsimmons saying a strike was "a last resort," and Counts describing the industry as refusing to make further concessions, in order to "maintain (our) integrity."
Selective strikes have been employed previously by the Teamsters, However, there has never been a protracted nationwide trucking strike or locking out in the 12 years since the Teamsters and industry have working under a master freight agreement.
The union walked out for three days while the just-expired contract was being negotiated in 1976, causing some economic disruption.
The Teamsters negotiations, which began in December and continued bargaining began here two weeks ago, were the second bargaining-table test of the administration's five-month-old guideline program.
In January, oil refinery workers settled without a strike on a new contract that conformed to the guidelines.
From the start, Fitzsimmons said the ability of his giant union to comply with the wage guidelines higed on the administration's success in keeping down prices and on its willingness to relax the guidelines themselves.
But Fitzsimmons was under pressure, too, including continual government probes into union finances, rising competition from nonunion truckers and administration threats to deregulate the trucking industry, which the union fears would further erode its strength.
Mindful that a guideline-busting Teamsters settlement could doom its voluntary wage and price restraint program, the administration agreed some time ago to exempt the cost of maintaining existing pension benefits and some health care costs from its guideline calculations.
Then last week, as strike talk mounted and the union continued to press for more concessions, the administration relented again, exempting 21 of 58 cents in hourly cost-of-living increases that Teamster members expect to get retroactively in the new contract. This, in effect, added 1.7 percent to total compensation gains the Teamsters could set and still stay within the guidelines.
To help employers bear the cost of the settlement, anti-inflation officials backed off a bit from their earlier objections to rate increase proposals that tuckers filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission.