Labor's vigorous pay demands may put pressure on Democrats
Labor negotiations covering well over a million workers are under way this year, and there are signs they may spell trouble not only for the major industries involved but also for presidential politics.
In the past, union militancy at bargaining tables during election campaigns has cost the labor-supported Democratic Party the votes of independents and conser-vatives who were concerned about Big Labor's influence in politics. This may become a problem for the Democrats, with unions growing more militant in negotiations in the auto industry, with the United States Postal Service, in the coal industry, and in other bargaining.
On the surface, talks between the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and General Motors and Ford appeared friendly and conciliatory when they opened. But Owen Bieber, the union's president, expects negotiations to be ''much tougher'' than they have been in the recent past. Nevertheless, both sides look for what Mr. Bieber calls ''a fair and realistic contract ... in a fashion that does not lead to a confrontation.''
But auto unionists are demanding restoration of the wages and benefits given away in concessions three years ago. Their slogan is ''restore and more in '84, '' and it appears doubtful that a contract without substantial gains will be ratified in this year of rising industry profits and continuing recovery.
Postal unionists, involved in the largest labor talks of the year, are angry about the US Postal Service's refusal to bargain in a meaningful way and about its decision a week ago to impose a two-tier wage schedule for employees, over the union's strong objections. Under the Postal Service plan, present workers will continue to be paid wages at today's levels for three years, but new employees will be paid substantially less.
Leaders of the four unions, representing 600,000 workers, have so far managed to keep members on the job by warning that job actions, barred in the Postal Service by federal law, could lead to massive firings in a Reagan administration reaction similar to that in the air-traffic controllers' strike. The calm may end when the two largest unions meet at conventions in mid-August.
Coal miners have served notice that any efforts to force concessions in 1984 bargaining will lead to strikes. The United Mine Workers looks for hard bargaining, as talks, now under way, seek an agreement between the industry's cost-cutting demands and the miners' determination to win substantial gains while giving nothing up.
The auto negotiations, covering 500,000 workers, are the most important as a possible precedent in industry generally. Any break from the moderation seen in bargaining so far this year can be expected to bring pressures for bigger gains wherever contracts open up.
There are sizable gaps between what the UAW wants and what GM and Ford are willing to give. The UAW says its top issue is job security. It seeks to curb GM and Ford moves ''to supply the US market with nearly 650,000 vehicles from Japan , Korea, and Europe within the next few years'' which might cost ''200,000 US jobs.''
The UAW says workers ''have not had a real wage increase for three years,'' although productivity has risen 25 percent, and sales are up. Workers are expected to receive profit-sharing bonuses of up to $1,000 each under plans put into effect while wages were frozen.
GM and Ford are likely to hold firm against restrictions on overseas production, but they may settle for wage boosts of about 3 percent a year, a pattern established in earlier aerospace industry negotiations.