Coming contract negotiations in the trucking industry may offer a preview of the willingness of other unions to accept smaller wage and benefit increases during 1982.
International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) and industry representatives are gathering in Chicago this week for opening talks on a new three-year contract. The negotiations will be trying for both sides, since about 20 percent of the union's members are unemployed and major employers in the industry suffer from sagging profits and growing competition from low-cost, nonunion companies.
Both employers and the IBT acknowledge ''serious mutual problems'' that must be considered together. The Teamsters, the country's largest union and one that ordinarily confronts industry from a strong bargaining position, could be on the defensive. There are already indications that it will moderate demands. It may even decide to base new contracts solely on cost-of-living adjustments over the next three years.
Other unions face the same problems that are behind the changed bargaining position of the Teamsters. The United Automobile Workers, United Rubber Workers, and other normally militant unions are exercising new caution as they plan for the 1982 negotiations coming in the months ahead.
With jobs, the continued operation of marginal plants, and even the future of a number of industries at stake, many unions are showing a willingness to reopen contracts and accept wage and benefits reductions - or to delay scheduled increases in order to help employers in a deteriorating economy.
An official of one union with bargaining ahead in 1982 said recently, ''We want better contracts, sure, but we've got to be concerned about preserving the jobs our contracts cover.''
Steel workers employed by Timken Steel Corporation voted 3,446 to 334 a few days ago to give concessions to Timken in return for the company's agreement to build a new mill in Ohio instead if moving the operation to Kentucky or Tennessee where labor costs would have been lower.
Unionized workers on a number of airlines have taken wage reductions of about 10 percent, sought by carriers because conditions have deteriorated industrywide. UAW has given wage and benefits concessions to a number of employers in the auto, farm equipment, and auto supplier industries, but refused Oct. 27 to reopen Allis-Chalmers contracts in four states to provide relief from that company's high labor costs. The union said concessions could not be justified in that instance.
The United Rubber Workers also has given concessions to troubled employers. But its new president, Milan Stone, says URW will bargain hard in 1982, placing stress on job security and protection from plant closings.
Other unions that have given concessions and show signs of more moderate demands include those in the meatpacking, mining and smelting, steel, and newspaper industries, as well as some public employee unions.
The most serious confrontations are likely in the auto industry. General Motors and Ford are applying increasing pressures on UAW and its locals for concessions in the labor cost area, in order to lessen the advantage now held by Japanese carmakers.
The UAW insists that it will resist reopening auto contracts. Union leaders, however, talk cautiously of concessions in some cost areas in 1982 bargaining in return for more job security.