A federal judge set the stage yesterday for a critical test today of the Carter administration's power to enforce its already battered wage and price guidelines.
Acting on a request from the United Rubber workers and the AFL-CIO, U.S. District Court Judge Barrington Parker agreed to hear arguments this morning on their bid for a temporary restraining order to bar the government from denying federal contracts to guideline violators.
Although the Justice Department contends that the contract debarment sanction is legal, the General Accounting Office of Congress and the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress have said it is not. And yesterday Rep. Jack Kemp (R.N.Y.) said he and 22 other congressional Republicans-strange bedfellows for organized labor-will file a brief with the court in support of the AFL-CIO and URW position.
Aside from "jawboning," the contract debarment penalty is the government's principal lever to enforcing the othewise voluntary guidelines.
To suspend the sanction even temporarily would "cause substantial harm to the president's anti-inflation program" at a "particularly critical period," Council on Wage and Price Stability Director Barry Bosworth said in an affidavit. "Entry of an order that casts doubt on the legality of any part of the anti-inflation program would seriously undermine these efforts, create confusion and retard progress in combating inflation," saidBosworth.
According to the URW, the contract penalty is also the man obstacle to a contract settlement with the "Big Four" rubber companies, which together do hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business with the government each year. Underscoring its importance, union attorneys said the URW will suspend its plans for a midnight strike against Uniroyal Inc., its main bargaining target and the nation's third largest rubber company, if Parker grants the restraining order.
URW President Peter Bommarito contends that Uniroyal reneged on a proposed settlement last month under heavy administration pressure, including threats of contract debarment.
The pact, calculated on an industrywide average, reportedly exceeded 40 percent in wage and benefit increases over three years-far in excess of the 7 percent a year guideline for wage-benefit increases. Administration officials concede the settlement would have "devastated" the guideliness, which have already been strained by steadily rising prices and by a 30 percent, three-year Teamster pact negotiated last month.
A restraining order would permit the URW and Uniroyal to settle above the guidelines without fear of reprisal, at least conditionally upon an eventual court ruling in favor of the union's contention that there is no legal basis for the sanctions. While it would not resolve the basic legal issues, it could further undermine the force of the guidelines, which government officials concede are in "serious difficulty."
Without the contract sanctions hanging over the industry's head, Bommarito has said he thinks the union and Uniroyal could come to a speedy settlement based on the earlier proposal-although Uniroyal denies there ever was an actual agreement on the terms.
The URW, with 55,000 workers at Uniroyal, Godyear, Goodrich and Firestone, has been working without a contract since April 20. It set midnight tonight as a strike deadline against Uniroyal, which has 8,200 URW workers at 12 plants, after contract talks here April 27.