In response to selective strikes by the Teamsters, the nation's trucking industry locked out the union yesterday-effectively halting much of the country's freight traffic.
The action followed failure of union and industry bargainers to agree on a new three-year contract by their Saturday midnight deadline, an impasse that triggered the calling of strikes against an estimated 75 companies by the huge union.
The carter administration decided last night against any immediate attempt to get a back-to-work order under the Taft-Hartley Act-apparently postponing any such action for at least several days, barring an unexpectedly adverse economic effect from the trucking shutdown.
After a meeting with White House, legal and anit-inflation officials, Labor Secretary Ray Marshall said the government wants the dispute resolved through collective bargaining but will begin monitoring the economic effect, which officials are said to believe will be slow to develop to develop and not as crippling as some predictions have indicated.
Apparently hoping not to aggravate the already angry Teamsters any further. Marshall made no threats of strike-stopping action. Several months ago President Carter vowed to act swiftly to block any trucking shutdown that threatened the nation's economy.
The shutdown is an outgrowth of administration pressure to keep wage and benefit increases for the 300,000 and benefit increases for the 300,000 truckings members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters within Carter's anti-inflation guidelines. Both union and industry sources blamed the administration at least in part, for the negotiations' collapse.
In announcing the "defensive shutdown." Trucking Management Inc. (TMI), bargaining agent for more than 500 companies, said it had "no alternative but to instruct its member associtions and authorizing carriers to shutdown their operations in defense against the strike.
The union's selective strikes, which encompassed some of the nation's largest as well as economically most vulnerable freight lines, "will cause a major disruption in trucking transportation, not a limited or selective stopage," TMI said.
Meanwhile, as a stopgap, the Interstate Commerce Commission authorized its local agents to grant temporary permits to any trucker seeking to provide "needed service." An ICC spokesman said virtually any trucker with proper insurance could get authority while the shutdown lasts "to haul anything anywhere in the country." Normally interstate truckers are governed by specific ICC rules covering cargo, routes and rates-an elaborate regulatory mechanism that the Carter administration is proposing to dismantle over strong industry and union objections.
No new bargaining sessions have been scheduled, according to federal mediators, although negotiations are expected to resume this week. The Teamsters bargaining committee is scheduled to meet in Chicago on Wednesday.
When the talks broke off shortly before midnight Saturday chief federal mediator Wayne L.Horvitz sait the two sides were "awfully close" to agreement-an assessment shared by both union and industry officials when a settlement seemed imminent on Friday.
The main point of dispute at the break was reportedly the union's insistence on payment of cost-of-living demand would violate it, adding nearly 3 percentage points to total three-year cost of the package.
The administration, looking ahead to other negotiations in the rubber, electrical and auto industries as well as wage levels for nonunion workers, has characterized the Teamster contract as crucial to the fate of its faltering voluntary wage and price restraints. It has also urged all employers, not just truckers, to take strikes rather than capitulate to excessive union demands.
In calling the strike by means of a prepared statement read by an aide, Teamster president Frank Fitzsimmons denounced the administration for trying to thwart union wage demands, accusing presidential inflation fighteers of being "scandalously biased and grossly unfair" to the Teamsters.
The 70-year-old Teamster leader, whose stewardship over union finances has been the subject of government probes and at least one law-suit, also accused the government of making a "mockery of collective bargaining" and playing "no small part" in the collapse of negotiations.
He said transportation of military and medical supplies would not be interrupted by the strike and denied that the union's action would "endanger the health and welfare of the American people."
This had legal as well as public relations implications, because the government must prove that a strike or lockout "imperils the national health or safety" before it can get an injunction under the Taft-Hartley Act to get work started again during an 80-day "cooling-off" period.
It was apparent that Fitzsimmons called selective strikes rather than a nationwide walkout in order to make it more difficult for the government to get an injunction. The industry lockout makes the government's job easier, although not necessarily a guaranteed success.
It was also anticipated that the Teamsters might use the selective strikes to try to settle quickly with financially hard-pressed companies - a divide-and-conquer strategy ithas followed before with some success. With this in mind, Counts wrote Fitzsimmons warning that TMI has legal agreements with its member companies requiring 90 days' notice for a withdrawal from industry-wide bargaining.
The strike caused little disruption yesterday because no more than 15 to 20 percent of Teamster drivers and warehouse employes work on Sunday. Union officials said the strike covered 75 trucking companies. TMI officials referred to "42 major carriers" as being struck when it issued its lockout announcement but added that a number of companies not on the union's strike list were "the object of picketing or other strike activity."
The trucking lockout comes in the midst of a machinists strike that has shut down United Airlines, the nation's largest domestic air carrier, and strike threats by railway clerks against the Rock Island Railroad, a major Midwestern line operating between Chicago and Texas. The Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks, which recently settled on a new Conrail contract just short of a strike, announced yesterday that its members have authorized a strike against the Rock Island.
With more than half the nation's freight carried by truck and the Teamsters carrying a major share of that, shortages of industrial and consumer goods would be felt within a week, sources have said, unless the union goes back to work. The auto industry, for instance, would start to shut down plants and lay off workers within a matter of days, a General Motors official said last week. Shortages of some food supplies, especially fresh produce, could begin to occur in a week or less. Gasoline trucks are not expected to be affected.