Labor negotiations in 1984 will involve some 2.7 million of the 7.9 million workers under major contracts in private industry. Early indications are that unions will push hard for wage increases after the bargaining moderation and concessions in the past two years.
The depressed economy tempered union demands and held down settlements. The US Labor Department reports that through November, and for the last year or two, average wage increases in the first year of contracts were the lowest since the government began keeping such statistics 15 years ago.
Now, surging corporate profits, a stronger economy, and a probable pickup in inflation are expected to make the unions' rank and file demand wage boosts in 1984. Forecasts by Standard & Poor's and the Conference Board's Annual Labor Outlook Forum in New York are for larger settlements than in 1983, but moderate gains compared with earlier ones.
Major contract settlements in the first nine months of 1983 have reached 1.7 percent for the first contract year and 2.8 percent annually over the full term of contracts. The last time the same employers and unions negotiated (mostly two or three years ago) settlements averaged 9.1 percent for the first year and 7.3 percent annually for the contract term.
A fifth of those covered by the 1983 settlements took wage cuts, another fifth received no increases, and the others received wage and other increases that averaged 6.1 percent for the first year; overall, where there were wage increases, they were considerably below those in the inflationary 1970s and in 1980 and 1981.
Projections for '84 are for wage increases averaging 5 percent. The Conference Board panel says, ''Clearly, there will be no wage explosion in 1984 even as the recovery continues.''
Major contracts run out or are to be reopened in coal mining, oil, construction, railroad, auto, maritime, and food industries, and in the US Postal Service.
The first major bargaining will open in January and cover 50,000 oil workers. Their union, the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers, has served notice that it will seek wage increases in 1984 and give no concessions.
Agreements between 13 unions representing 300,000 employees and the major railroads expire in June. National maritime union contracts covering 29,500 workers on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts also run out in June, and in July 21,250 West Coast longshoremen will negotiate new contracts.
The largest negotiations in '84 will be between four postal unions, representing 572,000 workers, and the US Postal Service, in July.
Later in the summer, the United Automobile Workers will seek increases for 105,000 Ford workers, 320,000 at General Motors, and 37,000 at International Harvester. GM expects to be the UAW's strike target next year because of its high profits in 1983. (Traditionally, the UAW picks the strongest company for strike pressures.)
The United Mine Workers will negotiate new coal contracts in September, and president Richard Trumka told the union convention in Pittsburgh to expect tough bargaining, no concessions, and, if necessary, strike action.
Construction contracts are also up for renewal across the United States next year, and negotiations in other industries are also scheduled. About 3.4 million workers in major industries will receive wage increases averaging 4.2 percent in '84, under existing contracts. Some 3 million workers will receive cost-of-living adjustments in 1984 if the consumer price index continues to rise.