THE BROAD LABOR shakeout of the early 1980s is not yet over. Unions -- particularly some of the large industrial unions that were national pace-setters in the past -- are still playing a fair amount of defense at the bargaining table. There were examples this week in the classic cases of both autos and steel.
The United Auto Workers went on strike against Chrysler. One set of issues bespoke a new aggressiveness on the union's part, now that Chrysler is profitable; they had to do with making up the large wage and benefit concessions the union granted in 1979 and 1980 when the company was threatening to go under. Chrysler workers want to get back even with their fellows at General Motors and Ford. But the company warns that if the union presses it too hard it could start to totter again. And a second set of issues, having to do with possible future job losses, job "combination" and job security, suggests that the mood remains defensive. Chrysler may be back on its feet, but it still faces the sharpest of competition on all sides.
The other news of the week came from the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp., which is at a different point on the curve. A tentative agreement was reached to end a strike by the United Steelworkers that began in July. The company is in bankruptcy, and the agreement would grant it major wage and other concessions to help keep it alive. The terms are subject to approval not just by the workers involved, but by the bankruptcy court and the company's creditors. They are more important than Wheeling-Pitt's minor place in the industry might suggest, because they are likely, if ratified, to become the target in other steel bargaining in the next year. The domestic steel industry, like autos, is hurting from foreign competition, and in recent years has lost both market share and jobs. The union is under pressure at more than just Wheeling-Pitt to help the companies cut costs.
What all this helps sustain is an economy in which inflation and purchasing power both stay low. In most industries the cost of labor is the main cost of production. Labor costs per unit produced rose only 1 percent last year, the lowest rate in 20 years. That meant there was little upward pressure on prices. But the purchasing power of pay for an average hour of work was 6 percent less in the mid-1980s than in the late 1970s. To some extent that cut into both the national standard of living and the level of economic activity. In a sense we are all at the bargaining table.