Despite the economic recovery, the dog days of summer offered mixed portents for organized labor as the year's largest contract negotiations struggled toward resolution.
Yet labor's fortunes were better at the bargaining table than on other fronts, at least in some cases. Unions continued to lose more members than they gained. Heavily unionized industries were beleaguered by foreign competition, government deregulation, new technology and other demons of change.
"The big story" in labor-management relations, according to Jerry Jasinowski, chief economist for the National Association of Manufacturers, "is that the perspective of bargaining has broadened beyond wages. Tough bargaining on both sides will continue but...I think you'll see a shift in some cases from wages to job security, retraining, quality of work environment."
Beyond any changes in attitude, the other major development, he said, is that the decline in inflation has had a "major effect" in moderating wage increases, especially in multiyear contracts tied to the consumer price index.
Among the principal labor developments so far this year:
* The telephone workers' new national contract with American Telephone & Telegraph Co., ending a 22-day strike just as the company approaches a historic divestiture, struck a theme that some specialists expect will become familiar: the workers' anxiety about having meaningful work at all outweighed their desire for more money.
While it included only a modest wage increase, the agreement sets up what some see as a landmark company-funded training program to enable workers at all levels to develop a portfolio of skills so that they can rise above the various assaults on their employment.
* The United Auto Workers, in their settlement with the resurgent Chrysler Corp., moved back toward parity with their counterparts at General Motors and Ford. This indicated that they will resume national "pattern bargaining," after granting concessions in 1980 and 1981 to help save the firm from bankruptcy.
"This was a big step back toward parity," said AFL-CIO economist John Zalusky. "It's the end of the helping hand the workers have been giving those folks."
* The nation's largest union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, is asking its 1.8 million members to approve a "relief rider" to the National Master Freight Agreement that would return some money to managers in the trucking industry, which is undergoing the upheavals of deregulation. The rider would cut the wages and benefits of workers rehired from a pool of unemployed drivers. This marks the union's second round of givebacks since early 1982.
* Continental Airlines, in a dispute considered by some specialists a precedent-setter, has managed to fly most of its schedule and fill the jobs of striking members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Continental is one of several airlines suffering heavy losses as a result of the recession and deregulation.
* In Morenci, Ariz., heavily publicized picket-line violence and helmeted troops have characterized a protracted strike by union employes at the Phelps Dodge Corp. copper plant, which claims it must cut labor costs in order to survive.
Major contracts signed in the first half of this year contained average annual pay hikes of just 2.7 percent--the smallest increase in the 15 years the government has kept track and less than the rate of inflation.
Labor unions have suffered heavy losses in recent years, and not only because of a temporarily depressed economy. Membership in unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO has fallen since 1980 from 14.9 million to 13.7 million. Among major non-affiliated unions, the Teamsters have lost some 400,000 members since 1979 and the United Mine Workers lost 45,000 last year.
Only 20 percent of the work force is unionized today, compared with 35 percent at the post-World War II peak, and unions have won less than half of their certification elections in recent years.
Labor officials such as Zalusky maintain that unions are "doing a damn good job" of representing their members at the bargaining table, particularly compared with non-union workers. But "retaining and organizing members is a different ball game," he said. "We've been losing a lot, and it hurts."
Nevertheless, a number of labor officials declared that unions had managed to retrench and adjust to previous shifts in the labor market and predicted that they will again.