President Carter's wage guideline, strained and stretched from its recent encounter with the Teamsters Union, is getting its third bargaining-table test of the year this week as labor and management in the rubber industry struggle to reach new contracts.
Negotiators for the United Rubber Workers and the "Big Four" rubber producers are expected to reach new three-year agreements that push the already elasticized wage standard to the limit-perhaps to new limits.
Whether they will reach settlements by the time existing contracts expire at 12:01 a.m. Saturday is uncertain.
As of early yesterday, union officals said only one money offer had been made, a 7 percent square-on-the-guideline proposal last week from Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., the industry leader. It was quickly rejected by the URW.
Union officials are scheduled to meet tonight to determine strategy for the final day of bargaining. Issues include whether one company will be selected as a potential pattern setter and whether one or more companies will be targeted for strike action if contracts aren't negotiated by the deadline.
The Akron-based union bargains separately with the four firms-Goodyear, Firestone, Uniroyal and Goodrrich-for contracts directly covering about 55,000 worker. These contracts, usually virtually identical, then become the models for other URW workers, about 175,000 in all.
This year the impact is likely to extend beyond the rubber industry. The bargaining comes close on heels of a Teamsters settlement which the administration described as a victory for the guidlines but which union and management said could cost 30 percent or more over a three-year period. Although the guidelines set a limit of 22.5 percent for three years (7 percent compounded), government officials made rosy cost-of-living calculations and granted several guideline exemptions that made the Teamsters settlement seem acceptable.
Government officials concede that the guide-line-bending has given Carter's voluntary anti-inflation Program a "perception" problem, as one of them described. it. This problem could be worsened by big gains in a rubber settlement, even if the contract technically falls within the wage standard and numerous exemptions.
The only previous national contract negotiations this year besides the Teamsters involved 60,000 refinery workers represented by Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union, which settled within the guidelines but with a wage-reopener clause for the third year.
After the rubber workers come the electrical unions' contracts with General Electric and Westinghouse, a whole array of construction, garment and public employe contracts, and then the grand-finale showdown involving the United Auto Workers' bargaining with General Motor, Ford and Chrysler. Just two days ago UAW President Douglas A. Fraser, claiming the guideline program had "self-destructed," told the government to "stay the hell out" of his negotiations.
URW President Peter Bommarito has also said he is bargaining without regard to the wage standard, but the companies have indicated that they intend to comply with it. A White House official said yesterday, "We would hope and expect a guideline settlement."
Even without the guidelines, the URW would not be expected to duplicate the 40 percent gain it won three years ago-the most lucrative contract in its history-after a 141-day strike that had been aimed largely at winning cost-of-living protection.
Industry sources, however, say it could take more than the guidelines allow-at least under a literal interpretation-simply to extend the current URW contract's pay levels and services. In addition, the union is seeking an increase, as yet unspecified, in its average wage of $8 an hour as well as improvements in pension and medical benefits. Expansion of the union's three-year-old cost-of-living formula is also a major goal. That would not be counted against the guidelines but it could add significantly to workers' wages if high inflation continues.
Another major goal is more job security protection against employment losses when plants close, including earlier retirement, higher severance pay, relocation and retraining assistance, extended benefits and bigger employer contributions to supplemnetal employment benefits funds.
Job security is considered crucial to the union because the URW's share of the national and world rubber market is shrinking rapidly, forcing plant closures and loss of URW jobs. Just in the three-year life of the current contract, URW jobs at the four major comapanies have declined from 61,300 to 54,800. Further job attrition is considered likely.
How these contingent costs will be calculated for guideline purposes is not yet clear. They were not big factors in earlier negotiations. For cost-of-living increases, another major variable in the contracts, the government solved the problem by figuring the cost of the payments at 6 percent a year, no matter how high they actually go. CAPTION: Picture, Radial auto tires are lined up in readiness for a "bake" at a Goodyear plant. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.