Whether there will be a strike in the auto industry in mid-September now largely depends on whether the United Automobile Workers (UAW), the General Motors Corporation (GM), and the Ford Motor Company can work out in two weeks a solution to complex problems of job security, as the automakers look abroad for lower-cost production.
With an estimated 100,000 auto workers jobless, and, according to the UAW, as many as 50,000 more jobs in jeopardy, job preservation is the major issue, overshadowing workers' demands for more money.
The UAW broke with past bargaining strategy Wednesday, designating both GM and Ford as targets for intensified bargaining toward a Sept. 15 deadline. UAW president Owen Bieber will now join the separate talks with the two companies.
UAW toughened its bargaining position at GM and Ford after the companies made contract proposals that the union flatly rejected as ''totally inadequate'' and ''unrealistic'' in view of the greatly improved economic situation this year for GM and Ford.
The companies' first offers, according to union negotiators, left wide gaps between what managements are offering and what workers are demanding.
Each proposal emphasizes profit sharing rather than fixed wage increases over the next three years, and each lacks job assurances that UAW says are a major goal in new contracts.
Although only two weeks remains for serious bargaining and the UAW is threatening a walkout, there is still time to compromise. Neither side wants a shutdown that would jeopardize the US auto industry's comeback. With preliminaries over, productive bargaining can now begin.
Generally, economic differences can be compromised; in the current situation, the profit-sharing offers may be revised downward to provide money for 3 percent or more a year in wage increases. But differences of opinion about job security are much more difficult to solve.
When the automakers and the UAW last negotiated, times were bad in the industry, and the union settled for wage and other concessions estimated at $3.5 billion. This year profits have been at record levels for GM and Ford, and the UAW wants ''fair and equitable'' increases to offset what was ceded away two years ago.
GM and Ford, however, are committed to fight to keep labor costs down to levels that will enable them to compete with auto and truck imports. Alfred Warren Jr., GM vice-president for industrial relations, says that ''the need to maintain a competitive stature'' is critical.
Instead of raises, GM is offering a profit-sharing plan that would pay workers a lump sum of $600 in the first year of a new contract, $300 in the second year, and no payment in the third. The 1984 payment would be added to as much as $1,000 already due employees under a profit-sharing plan in the expiring contract.
Hourly wage rates would remain unchanged for three years. Pensions would be raised slightly. According to the UAW, revisions of GM's formula for cost-of-living adjustments would produce ''less, less, and less'' as costs went up. Newly hired workers would be paid only 75 percent of the wage for experienced employees, but their pay would rise to the level of others in five years.
Ford's profit-sharing offer was less specific, but would result in a first-year lump-sum payment of between $1,600 and $1,700. Peter J. Pestillo, Ford's vice-president for labor, says the company believes an agreement can be reached ''without an increase in the base wage.''
The job situation is more troublesome. US automakers are reluctant to agree to restrictions on the use of robots and other technological improvements that could cost jobs in plants. Nor do they agree on limiting the purchases of cars or parts from outside the US or the production in company plants abroad.
GM has an agreement with Japanese companies to buy up to 280,000 small cars to be sold in the United States as Chevrolets. Ford is building a plant in Mexico to supply small cars to its US dealers.
GM and Ford say they must retain flexibility to buy or produce cars and parts wherever they can at competitive prices. UAW's Mr. Bieber says thousands of auto workers could lose jobs permanently unless imports are restricted by labor contracts or federal law.