Steelworkers may be ready to offer wage cuts

The United Steelworkers, worried about additional job losses and a decline in the nation's steel industry, appear ready for new contract talks that would include wage concessions.

Steelworkers attending a union convention in Atlantic City, N.J., this week are voicing strong support for opening talks that would supersede the present contract, which expires Aug. 1, 1983. However, less than two months ago local union leaders rejected a steel-companies proposal that would have reduced labor costs while channeling funds to unemployed steelworkers.

Many of the local leaders who turned down the companies' proposals on July 30 are delegates to the Atlantic City convention and still feel that the rejection was in the best interests of the 260,000 unionists employed by the eight basic steel companies.

The companies wanted a three-year wage freeze and a cutback in cost-of-living adjustments (COLA). They offered to channel as much as $200 million to a large number of unemployed steelworkers - an offer the union leadership said then ''proved not to be sound.'' Unemployment in the industry is about 45 percent.

With the July 30 deadline approaching for an early bargaining agreement, the union made a counterproposal, which it said would save the companies $2 billion over three years. However, the companies were not willing to give up their own proposal, which would have cut costs by $6 billion. The contract talks ended.

Under the current three-year contract a 23-cent-an-hour wage increase went into effect Aug. 30. Workers also got a 25-cent-an-hour COLA increase.

The breakdown in talks brought grim prospects for bargaining next spring and serious threats of a nationwide strike. In the past, even a threat of a walkout has sent the steel industry's auto and other customers scurrying to place orders with overseas mills.

According to industry leaders, the situation has further deteriorated since July and lower labor costs are essential to recovery.

Union leaders agree, although they still want the major companies to ease their demands.

''Our members were prepared to make sacrifices in July, and they still are, if the companies demonstrate that considerations would be given to more job security, modernization of the industry, and help for the tens of thousands of workers who are on extended layoff and whose benefits have been exhausted,'' United Steelworkers president Lloyd McBride said in Atlantic City.

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