My name's Tommy, not Swami.
That was the snappy and accurate retort from one Teamsters official pressed to predict the outcome of the trucking industry labor negotiations that began here Thursday.The outlook is uncertain for the next 10 weeks of bargaining aimed at producing a new National Master Freight Agreement between truckers and their union employees.
The current contract, which covers 180,000 Teamsters truck drivers, dock workers, mechanics and clerical employees, expires March 31. No one expects a strike, but an unsettled economic environment - plus a big division between trucking's haves and have-nots - could make this bargaining session one of the toughest in recent history, Teamsters officials said.
Most trucking companies still are reeling from a financially disastrous 1987, a fact that has not escaped the union. The Teamsters economics department released a financial analysis this week that shows after-tax net income for 26 large companies covered by the contract plunged to $17.8 million in the third quarter of 1987 from $97.5 million a year earlier.
A prolonged rate war, which helped to drive several Teamsters companies out of business or to the brink of failure, is responsible for much of the turmoil.
At the same time, a handful of large national fleets and a few regional carriers remain successful and cash-rich.
At Thursday's largely ceremonial meeting, the union's negotiating committee exchanged contract proposals with two employer bargaining groups, Trucking Management Inc. and the Motor Carrier Labor Advisory Council.
A third association, Regional Carriers Inc., also will hold talks with the Teamsters. Hundreds of other companies, including many that left the multi- employer groups, will bargain separately.
Trucking Management is the carriers' principal negotiating arm, representing 34 fleets that employ more than 96,000 Teamsters. Major national companies like Roadway Express Inc., Yellow Freight System Inc. and Consolidated Freightways Inc. are part of this group, which is headed by its president and chief negotiator, Arthur Bunte.
Thirty-one supplemental agreements addressing geographical issues will be negotiated concurrently with the master pact.
Most of the early contract proposals focus on working conditions, grievance procedures and other non-financial issues. Negotiators will not begin hard bargaining on monetary proposals for at least several weeks.
Jack Yager, director of the union's freight division, is leading the union negotiators. Teamsters general president Jackie Presser officially heads the bargaining committee, but one union insider said he would not participate directly in the talks unless he's needed.
Several major issues are expected to dominate the talks.
The two-tier pay system has really upset our members, said Clifton McDonald, president of Local 557 in Baltimore, who attended the contract opening.
Under the current agreement, newly hired Teamsters start at 70 percent of the $14.71 hourly industry standard. But veteran drivers displaced by bankruptcies have resented starting new jobs at sharply lower wages.
Other bargainers at the Washington meeting said the contract may focus more on benefits, such as health and welfare and pensions, than wages.
In a recent survey of the union's membership, 55,000 rank and file Teamsters rated better insurance and pension plans ahead of wages and cost-of- living allowances.
Currently, employers contribute an average of $139.70 a week to health and welfare and pension plans for each employee.
Several safety issues also will be discussed, including alleged health problems tied to the diesel exhaust from fork-lift trucks.
Management's chief concern is competition from low-cost non-union carriers. With labor comprising better than 60 percent of a truck line's operating costs, keeping a lid on wages and benefits is an industry priority.
As the talks opened, Mr. Bunte said the trucking industry is still in a state of turmoil and . . . the shakeout from deregulation is not over yet.