Negotiators for the United Rubber Workers union and B.F. Goodrich Co. retrieved their contract negotiations from the brink of collapse yesterday as some headway was reported in the rubber industry's latest effort to break its bargaining deadlock.
Chief federal mediator Wayne L. Horvitz said the two sides were "back to constructive bargaining" last night after edging "very close to a strike" in an earlier, acrimonious, session that lasted until 4 a.m.
The bargainers recessed shortly before 1 a.m. today, reporting considerable progress and saying they hoped to wrap up an agreement later today.
But he said they were still divided over key monetary and union security issues, and he declined to predict whether the talks will succeed.
Rubber contract bargaining has received more than normal attention because of heavy pressure by the Carter administration, at least at the start, to keep the industry from blasting another hole in its anti-inflation guidelines program.
So farm the administration had succeeded, but largely at the price of a five-week strike against Uniroyal Inc. and a bargaining standoff with the rest of the industry.
The URW struck Uniroyal May 9 accusing the company, the nation's third largest tire maker, of reneging under White House pressure on an agreement that would set the pattern for the whole industry.
Although anti-inflation officials have reportedly played less of a role, perhasp none at all, in the more recent round of bargaining with Goodrich, early optimism about a breakthrough quickly faded as the toughest issues were joined.
Among them, Horvitz said in briefing reporters early yesterday, were URW proposals for a corporate hands-off policy toward union organizing of new plants and for more generous cost-of-living payments to keep up with inflation.
On the so-called "neutrality" (hands-off) clause in particular, URW President Peter Bommarito yesterday accused Goodyear, the country's largest tire maker, of pressing Goodrich, fourth among the tire companies, to take a hard line. "I see the shadowy hand of Goodyear, yes, I do," said Bommarito, although he added that he wasn't sure that Goodrich had succumbed to the pressure.
Goodyear has extensive non-union operations, while Goodrich's tire plants are totally unionized.
The rubber talks come at a critical juncture for the anti-inflation program, following a guidelines-stretching Teamster settlement and preceding the big-stakes summer schedule of bargaining in the electrical and auto manufacturing industries. They also come against a backdrop of a federal court ruling, now on appeal, that strips the government of its power to deny federal contracts to guideline violators.
Optimism about a breakthrough in the Goodrich round of bargaining arose because the company and the union enjoy unusually good relations and because Goodrich carefully avoided locking itself into the guideline limits, as Uniroyal has done.
But by late Wednesday the optimism began to fade. "Tempers were getting pretty short," said Horvitz in explaining why he called the break at 4 a.m.
Although union bargainers indicated earlier that they would either settle with Goodrich or concede failure in the Wednesday night session there was apparently enough hope for an agreement to warrant more bargaining yesterday.
But Horvitz, who initiated the Goodrich-URW talks last week after weeks of fruitless bargaining between the union and Uniroyal, did not hold out high hopes.
"i'm not, frankly, terribly optimistic," he said after Wednesday's session ended, adding that the issues in dispute are "very hard . . . serious ones," similar to many of the contested issues in the Uniroyal talks.
So far the union's strike action has been limited to 8,300 workers at Uniroyal, but Bommarito yesterday refused to rule out a strike against Goodrich, which employs 9,400 URW members, if the current talks fail. CAPTION: Picture, Chief federal mediator Wayne L. Horvitz, left, faces reporters during a lull in rubber industry negotiations.