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Car-haulers' tentative agreement -- two-tiered pay scale for some

Your local auto dealer is probably smiling again. A three-week strike by car-hauling truck drivers, which effectively stopped the flow of new cars from the factory to the showroom, may be over soon.

``We're delighted at the news,'' says Louis Priebe, a spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association. ``Spot shortages were beginning to be felt.''

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The good news stemmed from an announcement Wednesday that the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, had reached a tentative agreement with the car-hauling companies. Today union leaders representing the 20,000 car-haulers will vote on the proposed contract. The drivers, who soundly rejected an earlier proposal, will also vote. This ratification procedure, if done through mail ballots, could prolong the strike another two to three weeks, says Teamsters spokesman Tim O'Neill. At time of this writing, a decision had not been made about whether to try to speed up the process.

The tentative settlement was believed to be more favorable to the drivers than the one rejected earlier. ``Our basic feeling is that big gains have been made,'' says David Pratt, spokesman for Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a dissident group that opposed the earlier proposal. ``But much more needs to be done.''

The Teamsters for a Democratic Union have not yet decided whether to support the latest proposal. According to Mr. Pratt, who had heard reports on but not seen the proposal, several controversial demands by management were either eliminated or toned down.

Drivers will not have their per-mile pay on return trips cut in half. Also, management's proposal to hire new employees at a lower wage scale was modified. Pay for drivers, who make up 80 to 85 percent of the employees covered under the contract, will not be affected, but other employees will work under a two-tiered wage scale.

The move toward lower wage scales for newly hired workers -- known as two-tiered contracts -- has been prevalent in several industries in recent years. Meatpacking and airline employees have been especially hard hit by this trend.

Labor experts are not yet certain whether two-tiered contracts will remain in effect for the long term or merely serve as a transition to lower pay scales for all workers.

``It's merely a method of trying to cut wages in a way that management feels will be easier to sell to the union,'' says Harvey L. Friedman, director of the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts. But ``the two-tier system is still too new to evaluate.''

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The evidence points both ways. Earlier this year, United Airlines became the fifth major carrier to impose a two-tiered scale on its pilots. But according to reports this week, the first airline to institute a two-tiered pilot contract -- American Airlines -- is reducing the disparity between old and new workers and making a provision for them eventually to catch up with the high scale.

The car-haulers settlement may be another example that management's move to two-tiered pay has its limits.

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