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Copper firm fights labor-set wage pattern

When labor unions and business managers meet to discuss pay in the United States, negotiations generally are influenced by a wage pattern that the unions have established. This pattern is based on the most advantageous settlements reached with the most vulnerable employers, and then is extended to others in that industry.

Since World War II, this common practice has consistently forced wages upward in the United States.

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But during the past year, employers have been trying to break away from such patterns and to negotiate new contracts solely on the basis of a company's financial strength. Some companies have succeeded significantly, getting union concessions in auto, trucking, rubber, meatpacking, railroad, airline, construction, and other industries.

The automatic extension of bargaining patterns throughout an industry is much less certain now, but some unions are still trying.

Members of the United Steelworkers union who now are on strike at Phelps-Dodge mines in Arizona and its large copper refinery in Texas are demanding that their employer accept a pattern set firmly in other major bargaining. Phelps-Dodge is against going along with an industry pattern that it says denies the company needed relief from high labor costs.

Tom McWilliams, a Phelps-Dodge spokesman, says the company is risking a long strike because ''to be profitable we need relief on labor costs - in the past we've agreed to settlements which just weren't justified by conditions in the copper industry.''

Phelps-Dodge does not intend to do so this year, he says.

Instead, it intends to maintain operations at its mines and the El Paso, Texas, refinery by using supervisors, nonstriking miners, workers who have been on extended layoffs and want to come back on the company payroll, and possibly replacements.

''Our plan is to go on operating indefinitely,'' Mr. McWilliams says.

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Carl Morris, a spokesman for the striking unionists, says the strikers will ''stay out until Phelps-Dodge meets the industry terms.'' United Steelworkers official Cass Alvin says, ''It's impossible for the company to operate profitably with the number of people it will have. Few if any union members have crossed picket lines.''

Initially, picketers tried to bar anyone trying to go into the mines or the refinery. Minor violence occurred, but nobody was seriously hurt. The company sought and won court restraining orders, but tension continues.

Kennecott, a unit of Standard Oil Company of Ohio, negotiated a concessionary settlement with its unions in April. It signed a three-year contract freezing pay but providing for continuing cost-of-living adjustments. This pattern has been widely followed in other major bargaining in the copper industry, including negotiations with the Magma Copper Company, the US Metals & Refining Company, and the Inspiration Consolidated Copper Company.

Phelps-Dodge is demanding the elimination of ''unpredictable'' cost-of-living adjustments, reductions in wages for new employees, and ''substantial reductions'' in benefits, which were left virtually unchanged in earlier settlements.

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